Have you ever tasted an avocado? Avocados had been unfamiliar to many Koreans until quite recently. However, the avocado became popular in our society as its positive effects on the body are being highlighted. According to data released by Korea Customs Service in 2017, avocado imports amounted to $30 million, up 1458.3 percent from the figure one decade ago. Behind the glitziness of avocados, however, are serious problems that have disregarded. In response, The Argus sheds light on both the good and bad aspects of the avocado.
Avocados! Freeze! Hands up in the air!
What are avocados exactly?
Avocados are classified as a fruit as they fit all of the botanical criteria for a berry. While many people have tended to define berries as small edible fruits, the botanical definition of a berry is “A fleshy fruit produced from a single ovary.” As avocados come up to this standard, they can be considered part of the berry family. In addition, there are numerous species of avocado. The most popular type of avocado is Hass avocado. It accounts for about 80 percent of avocados around the world and features savory flavors and uneven brown skin. A total of 80 varieties of avocados are being consumed, including Shepard, Choquette, etc.
The methods of eating and storage
Avocados are climacteric fruits: they ripen after harvest. Thus, consumers purchase avocados before they fully ripen and eat according to preference. The dark brown avocados are just good for eating. The avocado in this stage should be consumed immediately or refrigerated. However, if avocado’s color is still green, it should be kept at room temperature until it turns brown. Meanwhile, avocados are oxidized after peeling, turning the flesh black. Applying lemon juice or olive oil to avocado’s pulp can delay the browning. This is because strong antioxidants in lemon juice defer the browning and olive oil creates an oil layer between the pulp and oxygen, blocking oxidation.
The high nutritional value of avocados
Avocados are rich in 17 vitamins, including antioxidants such as vitamins A and C, as well as folic acid, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. In addition, it contains essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, so it is highly nutritious. Although the fat content is a little high at around 17.3 grams per 100 grams, more than 60 percent of them are unsaturated fatty acids which reduce harmful LDL cholesterol levels. In particular, the nutritional value of avocados is higher in that unsaturated fatty acids are not naturally synthesized in the body and can only be obtained through ingestion. According to American Heart Association, eating one avocado a day is a great help in preventing cardiovascular diseases.
Additionally, just one avocado has a large amount of dietary fiber, 34 percent of the recommended daily dose. Thus, eating avocados helps the digestive system work well. Additionally, avocados are rich in nutrients good for the eyes, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Tryptophan, a substance that helps minimize insomnia by forming serotonin, is also abundant. Moreover, avocados contain much potassium, helping the release of sodium from the body. To sum up, avocados are a very healthy food for modern people who use smartphones all day long, enjoy eating salty food, and suffer from insomnia.
An avocado’s nutritional content is also very suitable for losing weight. According to a study conducted by professor J.L. Stevenson, C.M. Paton and J.A. Cooper in 2017, unsaturated fats inhibit the appetite and prolong satiety for an extended period. In other words, avocados, rich in unsaturated fat, can assist dieters by reducing the feelings of hunger. The results of research done by Joan Sabate, a professor in Loma Linda University, are noteworthy. The participants who added half of an avocado to their lunch menu lost 40 percent of their appetite for three hours after lunch, and 28 percent of their appetite after five hours.
The unparalleled economic value of avocados
The avocado craze has promoted the economic value of avocados. In 1994, the per capita annual consumption of avocados in the United States was only about a pound, but now it has risen to seven pounds. In addition, China imported about 154 tons of avocado in 2012, but that exploded to 25,000 tons in 2016, a 160-fold increase in just four years. According to statistics from the Korea Rural Economic Institute, imports of avocados in Korea also increased sharply from 402 tons in 2011 to 2,915 tons in 2016. Most of all, avocado’s global demand far outstripped supply, leading to a shortage of avocado in some areas.
As the demand for avocado increases, transaction prices have also risen, and more profit has been generated. Thus, the major avocado-producing countries such as Mexico are receiving direct benefits from it. According to a tally by Bloomberg, the price per 10 kilograms of Mexican avocados was 240 Mexican pesos (US$12) in January 2017. However, it rose to 550 Mexican pesos (US$28) in May, marking an all-time high. The example of Michoacan, a deprived region in Mexico, illustrates an economic upturn due to avocados. Michoacan exported about 770,000 tons of avocados to the U.S. in 2017, and it led to a boost in the regional economy. The residents of Michoacan are cheering on the high profitability of avocados by calling it “Green Gold.”
Besides the sales revenue of avocado, the economic benefits which can be gained in a secondary way are significant. In order to transport avocados with proper temperature and humidity, the demand for technology and manpower has soared, leading to job creation and economic revitalization. According to a study by Texas A&M University in 2015, the growing supply chain created about 19,000 jobs in the U.S. and resulted in a US$600 million tax revenue increase. Without any doubt, an avocado is a bonanza for the world’s agricultural industry.
The various ways of using avocado
Unlike other fruits, avocados are used in a variety of dishes such as sandwiches, sushi and bibimbap. It is because avocado does not intervene the original taste of other ingredients as it is not too sweet or bitter. Recently, avocado oil, which maximizes the efficacy of avocado by extracting and compressing pulp, is in the world spotlight. Avocado oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids just like fresh avocados. In addition, it is safe and healthy, as it has a high ignition point compared to other cooking oils. If the oil has a low ignition point, it burns and generates harmful substances in the process of cooking. However, the ignition point of avocado oil is 271 degrees Celsius, which is extremely high, so it hardly burns.
Furthermore, avocado oil is also beneficial to blood vessels. In a paper listed in “Disease marketers” in 2014, the effect of avocado oil on cardiovascular diseases was studied through tests on rats. It showed that LDL cholesterol levels in rats that ingested avocado oil decreased by 26 percent, proving that eating avocado oil is effective in protecting blood vessels. In addition, avocado oil is well-matched with green and yellow vegetables such as paprika and lettuce, as avocado oil increases the absorption rate of beta-carotene, a fat-soluble vitamin abundant in green-yellow vegetables.
Avocado-based cosmetics are coming up recently as well. Packs, lotions and creams made with avocado extract are good examples. Meanwhile, Biofase, a Mexican venture company, has developed eco-friendly plastic by extracting biopolymer, a polymer material, from avocado seeds. The company is now producing straws, forks, spoons and so on with this unique plastic. It is a very meaningful invention that may help reduce serious environmental pollution from oil-based plastics. In summary, every single part of avocados is useful in many ways, from pulp to seeds.
A harmful substance to humans and animals
There is the possibility that eating avocados can have a negative effect on humans and animals. A basic avocado contains about 300 kilocalories, which is similar to a bowl of rice. Although there are many beneficial nutrients in avocado, excessive intake of it can cause obesity. In addition, the high fat content of avocados may lead to diarrhea if one’s digestive system is not sound. Moreover, a large amount of potassium in avocado may bring about allergic reactions, such as difficulty in breathing and skin rash, so it is necessary to take careful consideration of one’s physical condition before consuming avocados.
One of the main points to be aware of about avocado is that it contains a toxic substance called “persin.” Persin exists in the avocado leaves, stems, roots, and poorly-cooked pulp. It does not have a fatal effect on humans as it is digested in the body. However, persin can cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to natural rubber. For animals, on the other hand, persin is very deadly. The American Society for the Prevention of Crucial to Animals (ASPCA) once warned that persin is dangerous to horses as it can cause abdominal pain, cardiovascular disease and death. Since these illnesses also arise in smaller animals, it is recommended to avoid feeding avocados to pets.
There is another potential danger of avocados that can affect both humans and animals. It is Listeria, which is a major source of infection in food. According to a sample survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018, “Listeria monocytogenes,” the causative bacteria of Listeria, was found at a rate of one in five avocados. The major symptoms of Listeria are high fever, headache and stomachache. In addition, it can cause stillbirth and miscarriage in pregnant women. Therefore, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems should be more careful when eating avocados. Also, as pathogens are mostly present in the peel, washing avocados clean and eating them as soon as possible after washing are very important.
A means of making money in gangs
While avocados are praised as the “Green Gold,” paradoxically, they are also stigmatized as “Blood Avocado.” The situation of Mexico, which accounts for 45 percent of the world’s avocado production, is a prime example. Mexico’s drug cartels set aside a certain amount of money to avocado farmers on a certain basis, such as US$100 per hectare of cultivation and 10 cents per 450 grams of avocado weight sold. Then, they take away the farmers’ profits under the name of “Farm protection costs.” According to estimates by the Mexican government, one crime syndicate makes about US$150 million per year in this way.
Money being robbed by gangs is not the only danger. These criminal organizations kidnapped and killed farmers who refused to pay protection costs and even stole data from governmental institutions to get information on the avocado farms. As a result, the more avocados that are sold, the more money criminal gangs make. Thus, some farmers have formed vigilante corps to resist these criminal organizations. Even today, conflicts between farmers and gangs are getting worse.
In New Zealand, thefts preying on avocados are rampant. In some areas of New Zealand, the avocado has become so expensive that it costs as much as US$7.50 per unit. Such high profitability of the avocado has been very attractive to thieves. In 2017, police in the Bay of Flinty region announced that a total of nine cases of avocado thefts occurred between May and July only in Tauranga and Katikati city. Local farmers even set up surveillance cameras and surrounded the farms with barbed wire to prevent the theft. However, there is still a high chance that thieves will be active as long as the avocado continues to maintain its high price.
A factor causing environmental destruction
Some point out that the cultivation of avocados causes environmental disruption. To raise avocados, farmlands have to be secured by destroying existing forests. Thus, a large scale of deforestation is unavoidably carried out. The Mexican government analyzed that about 690 hectares of forest were annually converted into avocado orchards between 2000 and 2010. Furthermore, the pace of conversion was accelerated as the price of avocados rose due to the increase in its demand. The land reclamation is still underway and destroying the environment. In particular, there are many concerns as these reclaimed-lands are adjacent to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The amount of water used to grow avocados is significant as well. It takes 320 liters of water to produce an avocado. However, it takes only five liters and 22 liters of water, respectively, to cultivate a tomato and an orange. Given that humans need 2 liters of water per day, an avocado’s water consumption is at a tremendously high level. In Chile’s province of Petorca, deforestation on a grand scale and water abuse for avocado cultivation have dried up rivers and exhausted groundwater. Therefore, Petorca residents get their drinking water from delivery trucks.
Air pollution from the transport of avocado is also a serious problem. Avocados are mostly produced in Mexico, Central America and parts of the U.S.. As a result, Asian and European countries rely on imports of avocados, in which airplanes or ships used to transport avocados utilize fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Moreover, avocados require suitable temperature maintenance, which is a factor that increases pollutant emissions. Looking through carbon footprints, which represent the total amount of greenhouse gases generated from the production and consumption of products, two avocados emit about 846 grams of carbon, nearly twice the amount of 1 kilogram of bananas.
Janus is the god of the gate in Roman mythology and is usually depicted as having two faces. The avocado has both positive and negative factors like Janus. Economist and futurist Paul Zane Filzer predicted in his book, “The Wellness Revolution,” that the tide of the well-being revolution would flow to the next stage of the information society. As he said, well-being trends have been established around the world, and the avocado is gaining popularity among consumers as part of this trend. The Argus hopes that readers will be able to consume avocados with an independent attitude, not just be preoccupied with trends, but be clearly aware of the duality of avocado.
By Na Geum-chae
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section