The health benefits of avocados must be endless – it’s a superfood, right? Guacamole spreads, healthy smoothies, and salad’s green protein fix are just the beginning. But exactly how good are avocados for you? And are they damaging the environment? We’ve got answers.
Originally native to south-central Mexico, avocados made their first journey to the United States near the beginning of the 19th century, albeit under a different alias. Historically referred to in Florida as the “alligator pear”, this tropical fruit has only recently undergone its transformation into the superfood sensation we know today. Here are the answers to the most important questions about all-things avocados, their health benefits and the environmental impact of this trending superfood.
Avocado: What Kinds are There?
At a towering height of over 65 feet, avocado trees now thrive in plantations well beyond the native borders. Cultivation has since been expanded to encompass all tropical and subtropical regions on the face of the Earth. Although there are endless hybrids, there are three primary types of avocados traced by origin:
- Mexican (M)
- Guatemalan (G)
- West Indian (W)
There are some 400 avocado varieties out there – often hybrids of two different types. Most common around the world are the “Fuerte” (cross between G and M) and “Hass” (G) avocados. Other less common varieties include Bacon, Edranol, Ettinger, Pinkerton, Reed and Ryan avocados.
The Fuerte is elongated in shape (similar to a pear) with a smooth textured, dark olive-green easy-to-peel skin. Their fruits are in distinct optical contrast to Hass avocados which are more spherical in form, have a rougher, pebbled skin and change color from a bold green to dark purple by the end of their ripening process.
These varieties also differ in taste. Hass avocados are available all year round and have a rather rich nutty flavor to them – also somewhat buttery due to the oil content. Unlike the yellow insides of the Hass, Fuerte avocados have a mild and creamy green flesh which is rich in taste. When it comes to the health benefits of avocados, both have one thing in common: considerable fat content up to 25 percent.
You may be asking yourself: Fat? This is how avocado benefits your health? We’ll explain.
The Health Benefits of this Fat-filled Superfood: Are Avocados Good for You?
The high fat content may leave you wondering whether the supposedly healthy superfood isn’t just a calorie bomb in disguise: a mere 3,5 oz. of avocado can pack up to 220 calories. Of all things, how on earth are an avocado’s health benefits supposed to outweigh the calorie count of this fatty fruit?
Believe it or not, a majority of the fats contained in avocados are healthy unsaturated fatty acids. These boost your metabolism and can even help you lose weight. This benefit is one common reason for avocados’ role as a trendy diet staple in dishes such as guacamole.
In addition to these valuable unsaturated fats, avocados’ healthy nutrient base of vitamin B, vitamin A and E as well as minerals such as potassium and magnesium lend it its title as superfood. But the avocado’s health benefits don’t stop there.
The fruits are also rich in amino acids which assist the body in building muscle and reducing stress. This makes them quite the worthy pick for vegans looking for plant-based protein substitutes.
Another characteristic of avocados’ benefits makes them a particularly healthy pick despite their high fat content: carbohydrates – rather, the lack thereof. Avocados are a great food to incorporate into your low-carb diet and help to prevent food cravings.
However: There is an abundance of regional foods that both offer similar health benefits and have a far better environmental footprint than avocados.
Of course, when it comes to sustainability, the risks to the environment of many fad foods are no longer black and white. In the end, it comes down to informed consumer decision making, nutritional awareness and sustainable production as well as your own priorities. Check out our additional guide on another superfood craze here: Healthy Inca Grain? 9 Things you need to know about Quinoa.
The Problem: Transportation Routes and Water
As healthy as avocados are as the superfood of the decade, their consumption doesn’t exactly benefit the environment: when it comes to sustainability, there’s a catch.
Although around 80 percent of avocados consumed were grown in the United States throughout the 1990s, demand has since drastically risen along with total net imports. Avocados sold throughout the United States today are primarily sourced from Mexico, the world’s leading producer. In 2017, the United States imported approximately $2.6 billion worth of fresh avocados from Mexico. Avocados found on American store shelves also come from countries such as Chile, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. The United States benefit from imports when the fruits are out of season in avocado-growing states like California. However, avocados can have quite the lengthy journey to the United States.
Different avocado varieties ripen at different points throughout the year and are grown all year-round. Avocados are thus always in stock, yet each seasonal variety has a big the environmental impact. Here, long transportation routes in refrigerated containers are to blame for hefty CO2 emissions. Also, complaints have been raised by environmental organizations in Mexico regarding illegal deforestation in order to clear land for plantations.
Another environmental problem is irrigation. Growing one single avocado requires a whopping 60 gallons of water – and this in hot, dry places where water shortages aren’t uncommon. Estimates put the amount of water required to produce two pounds of avocados at 265 gallons – and that’s usually only around four fruits.
In many cases, the water used to irrigate avocado farms is sourced from homemade wells and plagued with pollutants due to poor filtering. Even the fruits free of pesticides are contaminated with harmful substances. This puts the superfood avocado’s health benefits amidst potential adverse health effects into question.
No Organic Seal, No Deal
Additional factors that bring the avocados’ sustainability into question are the environmental conditions under which they are grown. In short: Sustainable cultivation isn’t a top priority in many of the world’s largest avocado-growing regions. Mineral fertilizers needed for growing avocados leave behind significant quantities of salt in the ground and pollute the groundwater even further, rendering it undrinkable. The healthy superfood we know and love here turns out to be a very unhealthy crop in many other places. Do the benefits outweigh the odds when it comes to (often cheaper) non-organic avocados? We don’t think so.
When shopping for avocados, it’s important to look for the USDA organic seal and the closest land of origin. Sustainable consumption can reduce the avocado’s environmental footprint, yet a proper balance is out of the question. Simply put: Avocados are never going to benefit the environment as much as they will your health.
Buying Avocados: What to Look out for
When buying avocados, it’s important to keep the ripening process in mind. The fruits fall or are picked from the tree still hard and unripe. The ripening process only begins once the fruits are stored at room temperature. Any colder and the ripening process may be interrupted.
- This considered, avocados for sale at the supermarket usually make their way directly from refrigerated storage to store shelves. Some retailers let them ripen before putting them out and only sell fully ripe fruits.
- Is it ripe or not? Hass avocados are easy. You’ll know if they are ripe simply by the color of the shell. Green means the fruit still needs some time, olive brown to black shells means it’s ripe. If the shell appears wrinkled, this may mean the fruit is already overripe and shouldn’t be consumed.
- For green Fuerte avocados, a simple feel for toughness should do the trick in testing whether the fruit is ripe or not. If the avocado still feels hard, it’s not yet ripe. A softer, almost elastic feel is your indicator that it’s ripe. If even softer or mushy, don’t bother buying it.
The decision whether to buy ripe or unripe avocados depends on the time frame within which you plan to use it. Those in not much of hurry should purchase unripe fruits to let them ripen at home as ripe avocados should usually be consumed within a day. Also remember to check the fruit for signs of mold, bruises or the like resulting from transport or storage. These avocados are no benefit to you or your health.
Sadly, when avocados go, they’re gone. This is however not the case with other foods: Check out our recipe guide on giving stale bread a second life: Stale Bread Recipes: Creative and Tasty Recipe Ideas.
Storing Ripe Avocados Correctly: Proper Storage Benefits
Storing food correctly is important. How you store avocados correctly depends on two factors: ripeness and when you want to eat it. Unripe avocados that you want to eat soon should be stored at room temperature – optimally together with an apple or two. This trick accelerates the ripening process and can be used as needed. We’ve outlined the science behind this helpful kitchen trick in our guide on all things apples and their optimal storage conditions: Storing Apples: Proper Apple Storage Techniques.
If the avocado is already ripe and you’re not planning on consuming it immediately, storing it in the fridge will delay the ripening process for up to a couple days. The fruit will taste its best when taken out of the refrigerator at least one hour before consumption. Even unripe avocados won’t last longer than a few days in the fridge. No matter how pronounced its health benefits and no matter how often you eat them, stocking up on this superfood doesn’t make a lot of sense.
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This article was translated from German to English by Evan Binford. You can view the original here: Avocado: wichtige Fakten zum problematischen Superfood.** Links to retailers are partially affiliate links: If you buy here, you actively support Utopia.org because we get a small portion of the proceeds.
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