If you’ve ever tasted banana candies like Runts and Circus Peanuts, you know that -- as yummy as they are -- they don’t taste much like an actual banana. They are deeply flavorful and intense. Could you imagine if an actual banana tasted like that?
According to rumor, this classic “fake banana” flavor isn’t a mistake in the candy factory, but instead one based on a variety of banana that was sold in the early 20th century. The Gros Michel banana was the top exported cultivar back in the day, but was almost wiped out by a fungus called Panama disease. Supposedly these fat, flavorful bananas (their name translates to "Big Mike" in English) were the basis for artificial banana flavoring that is still used today.
When the Gros Michel were phased out, fungus-resistant Cavendish -- the skinnier, less flavorful banana we know today -- was introduced.
While that's a fun story that's been making the rounds on the internet, it may not be entirely true. A BBC reporter tried to verify these facts with science and was unable to find any proof. What he did discover was this: The quintessential banana flavor we love comes from the isoamyl acetate found in the fruit. In its pure form, you get banana flavor. Gros Michel does have a lot of the simple chemical compound and not the complexities of the Cavendish, which is why the rumor probably started.
Here's the big question: Did the banana variety inspire that flavor or does the flavor remind people of the old-timey banana?
You can take solace in the fact that the so-called “fake” flavor has its roots in a naturally-occurring chemical. Whether you’re eating banana candy, pudding or Popsicles, the flavor is achieved the same way as it is in the actual fruit. So, the candy is natural, in a way. Now about that sour apple flavor…
TL;DR: Fake banana flavor may or may not have come from a nearly extinct variety of banana, but the chemical they used to make the flavoring is the same as what’s in the banana.