Rich, creamy and tasty, the avocado is a real wonder fruit, packed full of nutrients. This fruit of the tall evergreen tree Persea americana is normally considered a vegetable from a culinary perspective, enjoyed in salads and dips such as guacamole. There are more than 80 varieties of avocado, the most common of which is the Hass, which is also known as the alligator pear, a name reflecting its shape and wrinkled rough brown-green skin.
Avocados are native to Central and South America. While they are now grown in most tropical and subtropical countries, the major commercial producers include Mexico, Indonesia, Chile, the United States (Florida and California), the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia.
Although the avocado is a fruit, it has a high fat content: 71% to 88% of its total calories, which is 20 times the average for other fruits. This means the avocado has earned an undeserved reputation for being unhealthy. While it is true that it is a high-fat food, containing 15 grams of fat per 100 grams, the fat is in an unusual form and provides proven health benefits. There are three main types of fat in avos: phytosterols and polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols (PFAs), which both have anti-inflammatory benefits that help fight a variety of diseases – including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis – and oleic acid, a monosaturated fatty acid that accounts for more than half of all the fat.
Oleic acid helps the digestive tract form transport molecules for fat that can increase absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as carotenoids. Carotenoids act as antioxidants within the body, protecting against cellular damage, the effects of ageing, and even some chronic diseases. Avocadoes are themselves packed full of different carotenoids, as well as containing the oleic acid that facilitates their absorption. Remember that the greatest amount of carotenoids occurs in the dark green flesh, directly under the skin. So, to maximize the nutrients, cut an avo lengthways into quarters, then peel it like a banana.
Some reasons to eat avocados regularly include the following. They are a good source of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), dietary fibre, vitamin K, copper, folate, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, vitamin E and vitamin C. The high concentration of magnesium and potassium can help reduce blood pressure. Avocados also support cardiovascular health and lower the risk of heart disease by improving different risk factors like the levels of inflammation, oxidative stress and blood fat. Furthermore, it has been shown that the oleic acid in avocados can help reduce LDL, or “bad”, cholesterol levels.
The fruit also has anti-cancer properties that are definitely related to its unusual mix of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients. For example, oleic acid has been shown to offer significant protection against breast cancer.
So, do not be misled by the avocado’s reputation as a high-fat food. Like other high-fat plant foods (for example, walnuts and flaxseeds), it can provide unique health benefits precisely because of its unusual fat composition, and it remains one of the best foods you can eat. And the good news is that they are generally available year-round.
Dr Irina Schurov