No, it’s not your skinny great aunt – obsessed with Pilates and Yoga. But it is gassy.
Ethylene, in our food context, refers to the colorless hydrocarbon gas which plants use (because it is a natural plant hormone) for growth by germinating seeds, affecting leaves, when to open flowers, and promotes the ripening of their fruits. But there is a whole lot more.
The fruits we love have gas. Ha! Sorry beans are legumes and not a fruit. The eating of an un-ripe fruit is not a desirable activity for us. We must be patience as fruits ripen which changes the texture (softens) providing better mouthfeel, increases sugars and decreases acids providing better taste plus wine/brandy making, and the desired changes in looks and smell. The attractive color changes (pigments) and the aroma/bouquet becomes more concentrated during ripening.
The ancient Egyptians and Chinese knew that fruits ripen quicker if given certain circumstance during their storage. Wounding figs (slitting, slashing, and gashing the skin) or burning biotic materials (plant fibers found in fields or with incense) to create smoke both produce ethylene gas which in turn promotes certain plants to germinate, grow faster, and more importantly – ripens fruits. These past cultures did not yet have the scientific knowledge of microbiological chemistry, but were indeed rather clever in manipulating foods, especially plants.
Today commercial produce companies build specific ripening rooms to employ the effects of ethylene. And they discovered to be mindful of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. In fact, I bet you didn’t know bananas have 7 stages of ripeness! I’m not monkeying around here, it’s true. There’s a whole bunch of science involved in how that green banana stick becomes that yellow edible food. Tomatoes are given a similar treatment, going from green baseballs to red jewels (yes, there are yellow ones, orange ones, purple ones, even stripped ones too). I don’t want to slip and forget to tell you banana peels have been used to promote pineapples to ripen quicker, now that’s real slick.
Ok, I know you didn’t just fall out of the banana boat, so here is the commercial life of the banana: Picked and shipped to arrive as hard Natural Green (day 1); day 2 – green with a trace amount of yellow (often the edges); day 3 – more green than yellow; then on day 4 there’s more yellow than green; day 5 just the tips are green; and finally on day 6 the banana is in full-on yellow display; then day 7 the brown spotting occurs. Historically, hotter climates versus colder climates determined the grocery selling stage (day three v. day five). How you like to eat or use the banana is up to you, but at least you now know the weeklong ripening process. And did you know only humans un-peel bananas from the stem end, whereas most other primates un-peel from the flowering end, pinching the tip first.
You can place your bananas in a paper bag, never plastic, to ripen faster. As with many fruits – even avocados, kiwi, and cantaloupe too, they will ripen faster in the closed, porous paper bag environment because they emit ethylene. Just watch out for over ripening (decay). On the flip side, your grapes, lemons and limes, leafy greens, cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower need to be protected from ethylene.
A bowl of various whole fruits can be displayed together if you understand that ethylene will quickly ripen some fruits faster than others. And there is no such ability to un-ripen any fruit, you only slow down or speed up the process.
I have fond memories of my adventurous youth, scraping my hands and fingers reaching deep into various berry bushes and falling from ladders by over-reaching for those extra cherries, way back in the tree. Fruits are tremendous foods and should be enjoyed at their optimal ripeness. Some people can also develop an allergic reaction to specific fruits, so be mindful of those symptoms.
Search Google for specific fruit maturity charts/guides if you like to grow and pick your own. Also search for lists of individual fruits that are sensitive to ethylene. If you are even more curious on this subject look up images of banana ripening. Hopefully, next time you are in the produce section of the grocery you will see the fruits in a different light and your new knowledge will have ripened your buying awareness.