This is a big one: Avocados- one of the most popular ingredients on the high street today, and growing in popularity all the while. Used in South and Central American cuisine for centuries, cultures all over the world are beginning to discover both the numerous health benefits and the culinary utility of this humble little fruit.

Is all this hype worthwhile? Let’s find out together.

What is an avocado?

avocado split in half and arranged together on a modern background

The avocado (persea americana) is a tree thought to originate in South Central Mexico. It still grows most prolifically in that region today. The fruit of the plant, also called an avocado, is in fact botanically a berry, containing a single large stone. The berry has a dark green skin, a fleshy body and is usually either spherical or egg shaped.

Ripening after harvest, they provide a soft, fatty pulp which has many culinary uses.

Origins

Persea Americana likely originates from the Tehuacan Valley in the modern Mexican state of Puebla. Recently gathered fossil evidence suggests that similar species to the avocado were more widespread pre-historically.

There is also evidence suggesting three possible domestications of the avocado from separate landraces:

  • The Mexican (aoacatly)
  • The West Indian (tlacacolaocatl)
  • and the Guatemalan (quilaoacatl)

The West Indian is a lowland variety that ranges from Guatemala, through Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador to Peru, being widely spread through pre-European human cultivation. The Mexican and Guatemalan are highland varieties, and all three are thought to have intermingled, again in the pre-European era.

The oldest discovery of an avocado pit dates from around nine to ten thousand years ago and comes from the Coxcatlan Cave in Mexico. The region’s contemporary residents lived a pseudo-nomadic lifestyle and subsisted on a diet of chillies, molluscs, sharks, birds, sea lions and, of course, avocados- quite a healthy diet, by all accounts…though not exactly vegan!

Etymology

The word ‘avocado’ is derived from the Spanish aguacate. This, in turn, comes from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl.

Fun fact: the word ahuacatl was often used to mean ‘testicle,’ presumably because they saw a likeness between the berry and the body part. Think of that next time you fancy some guacamole…

The modern English name comes from our interpretation of the word aguacate as avogato, with the earliest record of its written use being a 1697 reference to an avogato pear. This phrase was later corrupted into ‘alligator pear.’

Of course, avogato eventually evolved into the familiar avocado, giving us our current name.

Because the word avogato sounds so much like ‘advocate,’ many modern languages attached this meaning to it in their own reinterpretations. For example, the French form is avocat, which also means lawyer. Forms of the word derived from the word advocate appear also in several Germanic languages such as the old Danish advokat-paere and the Dutch advocaatpeer.

So, we have testicles and we have lawyers… you might be forgiven for thinking that the avocado’s etymology has perhaps not done it justice.

Main producing countries

an avocado tree

Staying true to its history, Mexico remains the top producing country in the world for avocados. The total area devoted to avocado production in Mexico is over 400,000 acres, with an annual yield of a million and a half metric tons. Not only does Mexico produce more avocados than any other country, it also produces more per acre as well.

Within Mexico itself, 86% of growth is concentrated in just five states: Morelos, Michoacan, Puebla, Mexico and Nayarit.

As the developed world has increased its demand for avocado, Mexico has been increasing both production and export amount for the last few years. The industry provides 40,000 permanent and 70,000 seasonal jobs.

The Dominican Republic is the second largest producer of avocados, with an output of around 420,000 metric tons. However, much of this is consumed locally, nationally, rather than being exported. They are currently planning to plant more avocado trees in a bid both to reforest the island and to increase their export potential.

Other noteworthy producers of avocados include Colombia, Peru and Indonesia. However, if you combine all of these together, along with the Dominican Republic, they still fall short of Mexico’s output.

Different types of avocado and how to identify them

There are literally hundreds of different types of avocado. However, out of all of these, eight stand out in particular:

Bacon avocado

These weigh in at 6-12 ounces, have a smooth, green skin and a medium to large stone. They are available until late spring and come in a traditional, ovular shape.

 

Hass avocado

One of the more commonly seen types of avocado, the Hass is a green to purple, pebble skinned oval. They typically weigh 5-12 ounces, have a small to medium stone and a soft, velvety texture.

 

Lamb Hass avocado

Similar to the typical Hass avocado, the Lamb Hass is slightly larger. Indeed, at 11.75-18.75 ounces, it is one of the largest avocado types available.

 

Fuerte avocado

A pear-shaped variety, the Fuerte avocado typically weighs anywhere between 5-14 ounces, has a smooth skin and a medium sized stone. They are harvested from late autumn through to spring.

 

Gwen avocado

These come as plump little ovals, have a pebbly skin and a small to medium stone. Like the Lamb Hass, they are similar in taste and texture to Hass avocados but are slightly larger at 6-15 ounces.

 

Pinkerton avocados

These avocados have small seeds, yield more fruit per tree than any other type and are available for harvest from early winter through to spring. Pear shaped and with a slight pebbling, they come in at 8-18 ounces.

 

Reed avocado

Another larger variety, Reed avocados are round with a slight pebbling to their skin. They have medium sized stones, weigh between 8-18 ounces and are available throughout the summer and early autumn.

 

Zutano avocado

These are easily recognizable by their distinctively shiny, yellow-green skins and pear-shaped bodies. They weigh 6-14 ounces, have medium sized stones and are one of the earliest avocados available in season, being available to harvest from September through to the early winter months.

But wait… are avocados vegan?

Some people claim that avocados are not vegan.

The issue is one of commercial farming – at least in some parts of the world. The process involves migratory beekeeping.

In some avocado growing regions such as California, there are simply not enough bees to pollinate the large orchards used in commercial farming. Bee hives are therefore transported by trucks from farm to farm, settling first in an almond orchard here, then an avocado orchard there, and so on…

Naturally, a vegan lifestyle avoids using animal products. Many strict vegans obviously avoid the use of honey out of a desire not to exploit bees. The debate as it stands right now is just this: is such migratory beekeeping exploitation, and should that impact our choice of whether or not to eat avocados?

Of course, this is a complex issue. The implication might seem logical enough: vegans should avoid vegetables which rely on migratory beekeeping in some instances. Or it might be a case of reductio ad absurdum, pointing to a line in the sand which even the most ethical of vegans might struggle to keep to the right side of.

Either way, there is no simple, single right or wrong answer. Geography also plays a part: the worst offenders are in California, with many other places such as the UK being free from such practices. I leave it to you to decide your stance, and to try to source as ethically as possible.

How are avocados grown?

Avocado trees are surprisingly easy to grow from seed. A plant grown from seed will be less likely to produce fruit but will still make a lovely tree. Remove all the pit from the seed of a ripe avocado, rinse off any flesh and then plant it… though more of that below in my handy step-by-step avocado growing guide.

The avocado tree likes warmth. It will not tolerate freezing temperatures and can only flourish under tropical or subtropical conditions.

Avocado growing indoors can be started from the pit but will be most successful from a healthy grafted dwarf tree. Cultivated avocados are grown from rootstock.

12 avocado facts you might not know

  • Avocado trees do not self-pollinate. They need another avocado tree near to them in order to grow.
  • Partly because of this, avocados are an Aztec symbol of fertility and love (they even grow in pairs on their trees!)
  • They are a fruit, not a vegetable. They belong to the genus persea in the lauraceae family.
  • Containing an average of four grams each, avocados are the fruit with the highest protein content.
  • Avocados also have the highest fibre content of any fruit.
  • As any vegan chef will tell you, avocados are not just for savoury dishes. In Brazilian cuisine, it is common to add them to ice cream. Many leading vegan recipes use them as dairy substitutes (see my recipes section below.)
  • The Hass avocado, the most popular variety grown globally, is named after a postman! Rudolph Hass discovered the tree in his backyard in 1930 and successfully patented it five years later.
  • Avocados will mature on the tree but will only ripen when taken off.
  • You can tell that they are ripe when they feel heavy for their size and begin to darken.
  • Top tip: if you want to speed up the ripening process, put your avocado in a brown paper bag for a couple of days, or simply place them in a bowl with bananas – more on this below.
  • The word guacamole traces its origins to the Spanish conquest. Explorers could not pronounce the Aztec word ahuacatl so instead called the avocado aguacate. This later evolved into guacamole.
  • Speaking of guac, over 53 million pounds of the stuff is eaten in North America every Super Bowl Sunday.

An avocado’s nutritional profile

Infographic courtesy of mercola.com

So, we’ve learned a little bit about what an avocado is and where they come from. But why is it dubbed a superfood: is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes, simply. Avocados are a nutrient dense, heart healthy bonanza.

We can call foods nutrient dense when they deliver substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in relation to their caloric impact. A third of a medium avocado – roughly 50g – contains a mere 80 calories. Yet it will give you nearly 20 sought after vitamins and minerals in significant quantities.

For example, avocado contains abundant fibre, healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, C, E and potassium. Avocados are among the best foods to help us in combating stress due to the wealth of B vitamins they deliver. They are also virtually the only fruit that contains monounsaturated fat – heart healthy, ‘good fat’ which is necessary in any healthy diet.

Here is a list of some of the most plentiful nutrients, in a single 100g serving:

  • Vitamin K: 26% of the daily value (DV)
  • Folate: 20% of the DV
  • Vitamin C: 17% of the DV
  • Potassium: 14% of the DV
  • Vitamin B5: 14% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 13% of the DV
  • Vitamin E: 10% of the DV

Avocado also contains small amounts of vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin) alongside copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, and more potassium than bananas.

All told, this 100g serving gives us 160 calories. Out of this, we get 2 grams of protein and 15 grams of healthy fats. We also receive 9 grams of carbohydrates, though as 7 of those are fibre, this equates to 2 net carbohydrates.

Avocados do not contain any cholesterol or sodium and are low in saturated fat. This is why some experts favour them as a food source.

Health benefits of Avocados

So, looking at the nutritional information, it’s easy to see why we are told to include avocados in our diets. However, not only do they boast impressive macro- and micro-nutrient profiles, there are also some fantastic health benefits to be garnered from regular avocado consumption.

Their profile

Avocados contain a wide variety of nutrients, including the aforementioned 20 different vitamins and minerals.

What they do

Aside from what they contain, avocados are also generous in what they do. They are nutrient boosters which help us to absorb other vitamins and minerals, most notably vitamins A, D, E and K.

Even for babies…

They are naturally free from sodium, sugar and cholesterol, meaning that they contain no nutrient debt, and their creamy, luscious consistency make avocados one of the first fresh foods available to babies.

Should you use an Avocado’s seed?

As we have seen, all avocados have a single large stone that is normally thrown away. However, of late, people have begun to claim that the stone has numerous health benefits and should be ingested.

What is in the stone?

The seed is encased in the large, central stone. Whilst information about their composition is still relatively sparse, seeds have been shown to have a good range of fatty acids, dietary fibre, carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. Most of the carbohydrate content within the seed is starch.

The seed is also considered to be a rich source of phytochemicals, some of which may have antioxidant properties.

Potential health benefits of the seed

The stone is used as a form of natural, alternative medicine in many cultures. For example, in Nigeria, avocado seed extracts are often used to treat high blood pressure.

Early research suggests a few health benefits:

  • Cholesterol: avocado seed flour has been shown to reduce both total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Diabetes: it may reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Blood pressure: studies suggest that seed extract may relax blood vessels, helping to reduce blood pressure.
  • Antibacterial and anti-fungal: avocado seed has been shown to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and funguses.

However, it should be noted that all of these benefits have only been shown in animal trials: there is little or no evidence that they would elicit the same effects with human participants, nor that it would be safe for humans to try them.

How to buy avocados

The key to any recipe is starting with good ingredients, and you cannot get much better than coming home from your shopping trip with good quality avocados. However, it can be difficult to choose the best of the bunch when you’re at the grocery store or market.

Don’t worry, though: once you know what to look for and how to determine the best level of ripeness in any given avocado, you can always come away as a satisfied customer.

First and foremost, look at the avocados’ color. Ripe avocados are usually a dark, purplish color with only slight touches of green. If you need to use the avocado immediately, make sure to pick one of these as it will be good to go as soon as you get home.

As well as the color, look at the skin’s texture. It should be slightly pebbled, depending on the variety. Make sure there are no larger indentations, however, as these can be a sure sign that the avocado has been bruised.

If you plan to leave the avocado for a couple of days, choose one that is slightly greener and give it time to ripen.

Remember, though:

  • Some varieties of avocado stay green when they’re ripe, so make sure you know what type you are looking for. Examples of greener avocados include the Fuerte and the Reed, mentioned above.
  • Color isn’t always the measure of an avocado. Always remember to give them a quick feel as well…

The squeeze test

Hold the avocado in your palm and squeeze it gently, making sure not to bruise it. A ripe avocado should be slightly soft, without being mushy. If it is overly soft, put it back: it has gone off and is good only for compost.

If an avocado feels firm or even hard, it isn’t yet ripe enough to eat. Buy it only if you have time to let it ripen further. The harder it is, the longer you will need to wait.

How to keep avocados fresh

If you do buy an unripe avocado, you can leave it on the side at room temperature to ripen over three to five days. As I mentioned above, if you want to ripen it more quickly, put it in a paper bag with a banana: the ethylene gas released by the banana will speed the process up by a couple of days. However, keep the bag out of direct sunlight otherwise they might get overripe and go off.

For ripe avocados that you want to keep fresh for a little while, leave them uncut and whole. You can store them in your fridge this way for a couple of days.

For cut avocados, either try sprinkling them with lemon juice, or else retain the avocado stone and place it back on the flesh for storage. This will help stop it from browning in the fridge.

Should you buy avocados organic?

It is always worthwhile considering buying organic. Most people would agree that less is most definitely more when it comes to pesticides and chemicals being released into our food and our natural environments.

However, avocados are a relatively safe food in this regard, making it less of a concern. They usually possess some of the lowest pesticide residues around. Even though a fair amount of chemicals are sometimes used in avocado orchards, they don’t make it into the fruit’s fatty flesh.

However, avocado farms – both conventional and organic – often make extensive use of copper fungicides. Although copper is an essential nutrient, too much can be dangerous and harmful. A single avocado can contain as much as 100% of the recommended daily intake, so make sure to bear this in mind when choosing how much to eat.

Ways to consume avocado

Incorporate it into your diet

Of course, it might sound a little obvious to say this: avocados are food, after all, and they are there to be put into your diet. However, there are a few tasty and nutritious ways to do so:

Eat it raw

At its simplest, just chop up your avocado, sprinkle it with a little seasoning and go to town. Alternatively, crush it down and mix it with chillies and citrus juice to make a nice, vegan guacamole. Slice it into a sandwich, pulp it to make a nutritious mayonnaise substitute, or dice it up and add to a salad: raw avocado can be made in as many ways as you can think of.

Cook it

Although raw avocado contains optimal health benefits, cooked avocado really comes into its own when looking at substituting dairy out of your diet. It is perfect, therefore, for a varied, exciting vegan diet.

Here are some great ways to cook avocado to include in your everyday meal prep:

  • Roast half an avocado stuffed with your choice of vegetables- I personally favour olives and tomatoes. This makes a particularly nice breakfast.
  • Spread it on bread and then grill for the ultimate toast.
  • Blend it down and add it to soup. It gives a nice, creamy consistency. Wonderful in mushroom soup.
  • Slice it up and grill it on the barbie.
  • Deep fry (not the healthiest, but delicious!) and eat them as chips.

Smoothies!

glass of avocado smoothie

The classic: smoothies can be a perfect meal accompaniment or snack. They usually pack a hell of a punch, combining as many fruits and vegetables as you can squeeze into them.

You can combine avocados with green, leafy vegetables like kale or spinach and fruits like apple, coconut or berries. For a protein-packed smoothie, try adding some vegan protein powder, like soy or pea.

For an on the go smoothie, try blending together:

  • Half a ripe avocado
  • Half a banana
  • One to two cups of milk (almond works well, but soya or oat are good too)
  • A scoop of soya protein
  • Half a cup of spinach
  • A handful of frozen berries

How to prepare and cook avocado

Now for the good part – let me show you how to maximise both the pleasure and health benefits of avocado through healthy and delicious, contemporary, vegan cuisine.

Before we get to some of my favourite recipes, however, it’s worth looking at how to make the most out of the avocado itself as a raw ingredient – how to get different and desired flavours from this delicious berry.

As this video shows, it is quite a precise task to properly prepare an avocado. However, it needn’t be daunting. At its simplest, all you want to do is get through that skin with a knife – always carefully, of course – to the flesh beneath.

Unlike a lot of ingredients, you are already good to go. If all you want is to chow down on that lovely, ripe avocado then go for it. But it’s always worth remembering that there are a few different tastes and textures to be had from avocado if you want to put in the time and effort.

Firstly, try pouring yourself a glass of vegan wine. A glass or so helps us all loosen up: well, the same is true of avocado. White, citrussy wines work well with the avocado’s soft, buttery flavours. The wine cleanses your palate so that all the avocado’s hidden subtleties begin to awaken. If you’re serving avocado as an appetiser, a glass will help liven it up.

Once considered taboo by foodies of all stripes, cooked avocado is beginning to gain traction. For a vegan friendly dish guaranteed to wow, try brushing half an avocado with oil and cooking it either in a fire pit or, if you don’t have one (who does?) turn your oven up to full blast and bake for a couple of minutes. The caramelised, smoky flavour you will bring out will be amazing.

Or deep fry them, as I mentioned above. Yes, it sounds wicked – but that’s OK sometimes, right? As with anything fatty, the high boiling point of most oils really gives it a special something. Very moreish, a little naughty – what is there to lose?

Other than this, dice, smash, mash, spread, cube, chop… however you want to prepare your avocado, something good will be sure to come of it.

Recipes

The classic: Vegan Guacamole

avo-guac being dipped

A simple dish to make, this vegan guacamole from Cookie and Kate nevertheless packs a powerful punch. Try it with bread, chips, chilli- anything, really!- and you’ll have a cool yet warming addition to your meal.

An Aztec creation initially, guacamole has taken the world by storm and can be credited with a lot of the boom surrounding North American and European avocado imports. You only need seven ingredients to make this variation on the classic: avocado, onion, cilantro, jalapenos, lime, salt and coriander.

There’s no excuse not to, really.

Vegan chilled artichoke, avocado and pea soup

avocado artichoke and pea soup

This is a good one: a perfect, cool and creamy soup, packed with healthy prebiotics. It’s a great way to pack extra veggies into your diet and makes a lovely addition to any gluten free regime.

This recipe uses spring peas for a fresh, crisp taste and avocado for a rich creaminess. Alongside artichoke hearts and fresh basil, this soup liven you up, leaving you refreshed, cleansed and well-nourished.

Mediterranean grilled avocado

grilled avocado

For a Mediterranean twist, try this grilled avocado. It is stuffed with a mixture of crispy grilled chickpeas, fresh cucumber and tomatoes. The addition of tahini really picks the flavours up, giving you a full bodied, delicious meal.

Peanut butter and avocado chocolate mousse

avocado mousse

Avocado is gaining traction as a key ingredient in many sweet recipes: this dish really shows off its ability to liven up dessert. Let’s be honest, any combination of peanut butter and chocolate has to be a win win. Add it to avocado and coconut cream with their natural, silky smoothness and you’re on to a good one.

Other avocado products

bottle of avocado oil with half fruit leaning against it

Other than being an important foodstuff, avocado has a veritable litany of uses in modern beauty products. Here’s our list of the top ways to use avocado in your own beauty regimes:

  • Avocado oil is a go-to product for many hair specialists, as our article “Avocado Oil for Hair” shows. Avocado hair masks can add lustre and shine and may even help to fix those pesky split ends.
  • Avocado face masks are particularly good against acne, eczema and rosacea.
  • As a moisturiser, avocado can leave you with a clear, matte skin tone, while also smelling amazing.
  • Avocado soap is creamy and foamy and particularly good with oily skin and hair combinations.

Growing your own avocados

Avocados are relatively easy to grow and tend from seed. Next time you are using avocado, try saving the stone for planting.

Here is our handy, four step guide for going about growing your own avocado tree:

Step One: remove and clean pit, and work out which side is which

You will need to begin by removing the pit from the avocado, if you haven’t already. Be careful not to cut into the stone itself. Wash it clean of the avocado flesh- it might be helpful to soak it in water for a few minutes before scrubbing off the last few bits.

 

Be careful also not to remove the brown skin on the pit. This is the seed cover and is needed for germination.

 

Some avocado pits are almost perfectly spherical, whereas others are a little oblong. However, all avocado pits have a top and a bottom, from where the sprout and roots will grow respectively. Find the slightly pointier end – this is the pit’s top. The flat end is the bottom.

 

To enable your pit to sprout, you will need to place the bottom in water – hence it is important to find the top from the bottom!

 

Step Two: pierce the pit with four toothpicks

Space four toothpicks at even intervals around the circumference of your avocado pit. Stick them in at a slight downward facing angle. Think of these toothpicks as scaffolding- they will allow you to place the bottom half of your pit in water.

 

Make sure to wedge the sticks in firmly. They need to be supportive as the avocado grows.

 

Step Three: submerge half of your seed in a glass of water… and wait

Using the sticks as supports, resting on the glass’ lip, keep the bottom of the pit in water at all times. Them set your glass on a sunny windowsill, making sure the pit gets plenty of direct light.

 

It is useful to use a clear glass for this. You will be able to see the roots as they begin to grow, and also when the water needs to be changed. Estimates vary between 1-5 days for water changing. Either way, you will want to do it regularly to prevent mould, fungus and bacteria growth which can kill the avocado sprout.

 

Sprouting generally takes anywhere between 2-4 weeks, though it can be longer so remain patient. The process you will witness will look something like this:

 

  1. The top of your avocado pit will dry and a crack will form; the outer seed skin will slough off.
  2. The crack will grow, extending all the way to the avocado pit’s bottom. A tiny taproot will begin to emerge through the crack at the bottom.
  3. The taproot will grow longer day by day and may form branches. Eventually, a small sprout will then develop through the avocado pit’s top.

 

Do not let the taproot become un-submerged or in any way dry out – ever! This will kill your plant before it’s even begun.

Step Four: pot, water and watch

When your avocado’s stem is about six inches long, cut it back by about three inches. This will encourage new growth. When it hits the six to seven inch mark again, pot it up in a rich, humus soil in a ten inch diameter pot. Leave the top half of the seed exposed.

 

Place the pot in a sunny window. As we have seen, avocados originate from hot, tropical or subtropical climates and hence love the sun. Water it frequently, with occasional deep soaks – once more mimicking the tropical environments in which they naturally flourish. The soil should always be moist, not saturated.

 

Top tip: if your avocado’s leaves begin to yellow, this is a sure sign of over watering. Let your plant dry out for a couple of days.

 

From here, just tend it, care for it, and watch that avocado plant begin to take shape.

Sometimes an avocado plant will begin to grow fruit at 3-4 years old. Others can take over fifteen years, and some never bear fruit. It always helps to have several avocado trees closing close together to aid in pollination – remember the Aztec symbol of love and fertility, as I mentioned above.

However, it might be worth managing your expectations a little. The fruit grown on your plant may not be anything like the avocado from which you got your seed. Commercially, avocados are grown from grafted branches. This helps to control the outcome of the fruit: a naturally grown plant may be very different from its parent.

Avocado 101…done!

That’s us pretty much done with avocados for the moment.

I’ve hopefully taken you through everything you need to know for these fleshy fruits and the trees that yield them. It is a fruit whose popularity has soared in recent years and which continues to grow – as it does so, more and more people are discovering them.

There are always new ways of using it and eating it coming out. Why not investigate yourself and find a favourite, or have a look at our own list for inspiration and let us know how you get on!

Don’t forget to share in the comments down below.

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guide to avocado

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
 
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.

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