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Consider the avocado: a case study in the value of a second look

This column, posted here every other week for the past several years, has never delved into food. There is one remarkable food, however, that justifies an inaugural foray into this subject, and that food is none other than the avocado. Let’s consider how avocado, not long ago quite low on any shopper’s list, dismissed as just too fatty, has reached the well deserved status of a widely acclaimed super food.

For thousands of years, the indigenous people of Central America actually revered the avocado, believing it an aphrodisiac, and thus sacred. But until the mid-1900s, avocado never really caught on in the US. Only two published recipes, both for salads, could be found for what was known in the 1930s as the “avocado pear.”

In 1982, Ben Wilson wrote in the Wall Street Journal of an avocado supply glut, and how growers considered marketing it as food for dogs (we have since learned that it can cause upset stomach in dogs). Attesting to its unpopularity was its going price of 10 cents per pound.

Consumers shunned the bargain priced avocado because of its “fat” content. As recently as 1987, the New York Times food section cautioned against the “high-fat ingredients in salads, like cheese, nuts, olives, avocados, eggs, croutons, and creamy dressings.”

Enter the California Avocado Commission, the growers own chamber of commerce. They hired a PR firm to improve the image of the avocado, remove the mystery that shrouded it, even sponsor contests with NFL players on favorite, newer recipes, especially for guacamole. This PR push also taught consumers how to shop for avocados when they are ripe.

As recounted in an article by Olga Khazan in Atlantic Magazine in 2015, the CAC pressed further by forming a nutrition advisory committee, bringing together experts in the late ’80s to promote avocados’ healthful qualities. All this proved to be among the most successful of public relations campaigns ever. Everyone took a new look at the once disregarded fruit.

For starters, it amazed everyone that an avocado, actually a berry, had such a high fat content, unusual for a fruit, while having only 230 calories. Then science took notice, drawing the distinction between “good” (monounsaturated) fat, found in avocados, and bad (saturated) fat, found in, say, pork rinds.

The California Avocado Commission then funded its own studies on how healthy avocados are. Among the most convincing, the Atlantic article recounted, was research showing that the fat in avocados acts as a “nutrient booster” for other food, enhancing the absorption, for example, of lycopene in vegetables. A spinoff of this new regard for avocado led to a new, heightened awareness of nutrition, and actually fostered the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on “good” fat and fewer carbohydrates.

But the once-maligned avocado’s health benefits by no means stop there. Studies published in the Archives of Medical Research (1996), the Journal of Arthritis and Rheumatology (1998), and a host of others, tell us about the additional, recently discovered ways that the more than 20 vitamins and minerals in an avocado help us.

The inclusion of avocados in the diet fights heart disease and cancer; treats arthritis pain; helps with other inflammation-based diseases such as Parkinson’s and Crohn’s; prevents and controls diabetes; improves skin tone, protects the skin against sun damage and even guards against wrinkles; lowers cholesterol and blood pressure; prevents constipation and protects eyes from developing cataracts and macular degeneration.

Avocado also encourages weight loss the natural way, by slowly burning energy so we don’t experience a “crash” in energy after consuming it. As if all this is not more than fantastic, note that avocado, with its significant content of folic acid, contributes to healthy pregnancies. So is it any wonder that avocado is now the rage?

And what a rage it is! California, where virtually all avocados are grown in the U.S. (Mexico is the world’s other major producer) celebrates the month of June as Avocado Month. Even Starbuck’s has added avocado spread to its permanent menu. The payment processing firm Square reports that Americans doled out about $900,000 per month on avocado toast in 2017. In 2014, this figure was only $17,000/month.

In 1974, Americans consumed an average of less than a pound of avocados, but this climbed to more than seven pounds by 2016, the year when domestic production went up to $1.6 billion, and is still climbing fast.

While there are over 900 varieties of avocados, the Haas variety, first grown in California in the 1920s, now makes up 90 percent of what is sold. In “An Avocado a Day,” a wonderful cookbook by Lara Ferroni, we learn that the Haas avocado ships and stores especially well and has the best flavor, along with what she calls a great “mouthfeel.” As more became known about it, and as avocado gained in popularity, one season of shortages (owing to poor weather last year) quickly raised prices, which have since stabilized, and may drop further as both U.S. and Mexican production increases. As its price finds its affordable niche, such stores as Whole Foods Market offer multiple stages of ripeness to meet customers’ needs. And in-house guacamoles sell through the roof.

Just as an aside, isn’t there a lesson here about human nature, about how we are so sure to judge something, or some place, or someone, thinking with a smug self-assurance that we know all we need to know in our all-too-often dismissive ways? But if we take the time, or more likely someone else does for us, to look more closely, examine, evaluate, and think more, then Eureka! What we turned away, we now embrace.

Far from being a trendy fad, avocado can now be likened to our daily bread. And health experts are only touching upon the value of avocado hair-care and skin-care applications, and avocado-based fragrances and massage oils. What was once a diet taboo has dramatically transformed into arguably the perfect food. Avocado even teaches us to be slow to judge, if judge we must.

And it’s just a berry!

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg