The Rise of the Avocado 🥑
Avocados have undeniably become one of the favourite foods of the 21st century. From good old guacamole and smashed avocado on toast to avocado ice cream and even avocado chocolate cake, our society has become obsessed with this proclaimed superfood. But where does this creamy green fruit really come from and how did it sneak into every household and corner shop today? I went back to research the origins of the avocado and traced it all the way to the present day in an attempt to learn more about this popular food.
Human consumption of avocados goes as far back as 10,000 years and is believed to originate in southern Mexico. These fruits were highly valued by the first Mesoamerican cultures who began cultivating and dispersing the plants across Central and South America. The Olmecs, an ancient civilisation from southern Mexico and Guatemala, are believed to have begun the first commercial trade of avocados around 1,000 BCE with the Papayecas of modern-day Honduras.
Europeans arrived late to the party and weren’t introduced to the craze of avocados until Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Upon his trip to the Americas in 1512, a Spanish historian and writer named Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo described the avocado tree and its fruit to his fellow Spaniards back home, writing:
“They are large trees, with broad leaves similar to those of the laurel, but larger and more green. They bear pears weighing a pound and even more, though some weigh less, and the colour and shape is that of true pears, and the rind somewhat thicker, but softer, and in the centre of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut.” He added that the flesh resembled “a paste similar to butter and of very good taste.”
The Spanish called it ‘aguacate’ derived from the Aztec name ‘ahuacatl’, and it wasn’t until 1696 that the English term ‘avocado’ was first coined by Hans Sloane of London in his index of Jamaican plants. Just as the Mesoamerican societies had treasured it before them, the Spaniards quickly caught on to the avocado fad, recognising its nutritional and medicinal value and claiming that it was a healthy fruit for sick people. The Spanish took the avocado on a world tour and introduced it to Indonesia in 1750, to Brazil in 1809 and to the Philippines in 1890.
Despite its global expansion, the reception of avocados worldwide was mixed as people were unsure how to eat the fruit, and whether it was meant to be served as a sweet or savoury dish. In the early 20th century, a professor at U.C. Berkeley by the name of E. K. Wickson even commented:
“There was no prospect for commercial culture because it contained no sugar and fruits were supposed to be sweet — the sweeter the better.”
Little did he know what was to come. In the 1930s, the California Avocado Growers Association first began marketing the avocado, labelling it as the ‘aristocrat of salad fruits’. This was the first time that avocados had begun to garner real attraction in the modern world.
Although avocados were becoming more common, they never really went mainstream until the end of the 20th century. The real explosion of avocados occurred due to a series of trade agreements between Mexico and the U.S., resulting in the U.S. market becoming flooded with Mexican avocados. With supply through the roof and prices falling, California growers once again went on a search for a new way to market their product. Eyeing up sporting events and the growing audience these events attracted, they began promoting nachos and guacamole dip as the number-one Superbowl food. The trick evidently worked, as today more than 47 million kilos of avocados in the form of guacamole are eaten on Superbowl Sunday alone.
Over the next two decades, avocados slowly etched their way into the mainstream, as more and more people were introduced to them. Between 2000 and 2017, global production more than doubled from 2.71 million tons per year to 5.92. As consumers started becoming more health conscious, avocados quickly became the next superfood with their high content of unsaturated fats and antioxidants. Prominent figures began sharing their affinity for avocados, with actress and health fanatic Gwyneth Paltrow listing it as her number-one breakfast food in her best-selling cookbook It’s All Good. These health movements only gained in momentum with the roll-out of social media. From hats, t-shirts and phone cases to the countless #avocado pictures posted on Instagram, the craze for avocados had well and truly arrived in the Western world.
Just as things were looking bright for the avocado industry, the dark side of the trade started to emerge. In late 2018, Michelin-starred chef from Ireland declared them “the blood diamonds of Mexico.” He called on consumers and restaurants to boycott the fruit due to the trade being controlled by drug cartels. On top of this, reports on the environmental impact of avocados have also made headlines over the last few months. Forest areas in Mexico are being deforested illegally to make way for more avocado farms which require vast amounts of water (an estimated 272 litres just to grow about half a kilogram).
To add to the uncertainty of the avocado industry, demand seems to have dropped whilst supply has gradually increased, leading to a sharp reduction in price. According to one of the largest growers and distributors of avocados in Australia, prices may have hit their all-time peak last year. Could the craze for avocados be losing steam?
Not quite. While interest in avocados may be dropping in the West, the fruit has certainly gained attention in the East. In 2017, China imported 32,100 tons of avocado, up from just 32 tons in 2011. As China’s middle class grows, the demand for avocado is only set to increase. Just as the avocado craze spread from the Mesoamericans to the Europeans, perhaps it’s now time for the avocado fever to take hold in China.
As for increasing demand in the West, perhaps just as the industry has done before, it will need to re-market the product once again. We’ve had the aristocrat of salad fruits, the guac dip and smashed avocado on toast. Could it now be time to market avocados as the dessert food?