The Quest for the Most “Popular” Fruit

The top search result on Google for the “world’s most popular fruit” leaves one rather baffled – it directs you to the website for the Detox Lounge , a San Diego-based wellness center for detoxification juices. Here, an anonymous author daringly declares that mango is the most desired fruit around the globe – could this be true?

Subsequent research on Google revealed that my suspicions were correct – under the assumption that books cataloged in Google’s NGram reflect upon the behavior of our general consumption – this this titian-shaded, succulent fruit has never been, nor will it ever be, the most popular fruit in the world. In order to illustrate my point, I thought of 4 other fruits that I deemed “popular” and entered them, along with mango, on this tool:

  1. Apple
  2. Banana
  3. Tomato
  4. Mango
  5. Orange

And the result is as follows:





Now, it is fairly obvious from the above what is happening: orange apparently has been, as Charlie Sheen would say, #winning, since the turn of the 19th century. According to Wikipedia, orange “probably” originated from Southeast Asia, and has been “cultivated in China as far back as 2500 BCE.” Could the rich history of orange be at the cause of its popularity? This could certainly be true, but we must take into account of the fact that it is a homonym, for it also depicts a color (or it could also be referring to the House of Orange – a royal line of the Netherlands). Apple, the runner-up fruit, was apparently first cultivated in eastern Turkey, and Alexander the Great “is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Kazakhstan in 328 BCE.” The third-place is given to the fruit that is often confused as a vegetable – tomato – it seems that while the people who inhabited in Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, have domesticated this red fruit since 500 BCE, but it wasn’t until the 16th century was it made popular by the Spaniards after their colonization of the Americas. The fourth-place goes to the fruit with the most interesting history: banana. It seems that the Southeastern Asian and Papua New Guinean farmers have domesticated the banana since sometime between 5000-8000 BCE. And if this weren’t enough, other specifies of this yellow, almost-crescent shaped fruit, was also found on the African continent, dating back to 1000 BCE. It remained on the continent of Africa, and the neighboring Middle East and Southeastern Asian locations until it was “introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors” in the 16th century. And now we turn our attention to mango, something that has apparently been cultivated “in South Asia for thousands of years,” and sometime between the 4th and 5th centuries, it was transmitted to East Asia and reached East Africa by the 10th century. It was subsequently brought to the Caribbean and South America in the 14th century. The biographies of the banana and mango certainly shatters my initial assessment on the positive correlation between a fruit’s apparent popularity and the amount of time it has been cultivated.

A quick search on the OED reveals the initial appearances of these fruits on the dictionary are as follow: apple (1225), orange (1400), banana (1563), mango (1582), tomato (1604). But in evaluating the popularity of these words, we must take into account how the word “orange” garners multiple associations. Therefore, it would logical to assume that part of its popularity must have been due to this very fact. Similarly, the word “apple,” given its traditional associations with the Garden of Eden and other cultural implications stemming from this tradition (or even Apple/Mac products), is also affected by the complex meanings attached to it. There is, nevertheless, a huge gap between these two words and the rest of the fruits – but does it necessarily represent their popularity as fruits? This remains uncertain, but certainly plausible. However, in reading this graph, one thing is certain: Detox Lounge is incorrect in claiming mango to be the most popular fruit in the world.

*all historical facts on fruits are quoted from their respective Wikipedia pages



2 thoughts on “The Quest for the Most “Popular” Fruit”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this account on the history of fruits and their origins. Looking at the timeline from the OED and the biblical reference to the apple I would agree that the apple would be the most popular fruit. If we could remove the color and name meaning of “orange” from the search I think apple would definitely be the leader. I think Ngram could take some advice from our class after we have examined their program so extensively- most particular being to allow specifications on a word’s context.

  2. First of all, Sandra, great study! While use of a certain fruit is definitely linked to its relative popularity, especially in research, I would be interested in knowing whether there are other explanations for usage.

    For example, authors of fiction often try to make their works relatable. If the setting, characters, and plot are unfamiliar to a reader, writers will at least include some basic, generic objects from our world (such as the Sun). Therefore, instead of using a fruit that is as exotic as their story, such as a mango, they will choose an apple, to provide the reader with some sense of stability in an otherwise unfamiliar universe.

    While Ngram cannot really hope to account for such subtle nuances, I just wanted to introduce the possibility that use of a word may not be directly correlated with its popularity. Just fruit for thought 😀

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