Avocado fruit (cv. 'Fuerte'); left: whole, right: in section

Avocados are the fruit from the Persea Americana, a tall evergreen tree that can grow up to 65 feet in height. There are dozens of varieties of avocadoes, which fall into three main categories-Mexican, Guatemalean, and West Indian-which differ in their size, appearance, quality and susceptibility to cold. The most popular type of avocado in the United States is the Hass variety, which has rugged, pebbly brown-black skin. Another common type of avocado is the Fuerte, which is larger than the Hass and has smooth, dark green skin and a more defined pear shape.

Avocados vary in weight from 8 ounces to 3 pounds depending upon the variety. The edible portion of the avocado is its yellow-green flesh, which has a luscious, buttery consistency and a subtle nutty flavor. The skin and pit are inedible.

History of avocado cultivation

It is evident from miscellaneous reports by Spanish Conquistadores that, at the time of the Spanish conquest, avocados were grown from northern Mexico south through Central America into north-western South America and south in the Andean region as far as Peru (where the avocado had been introduced shortly before the conquest), as well as into the Andean region of Venezuela. Avocados have been cultivated in these regions since 8,000 B.C.

In the mid-17th century, they were introduced to Jamaica and spread through the Asian tropical regions in the mid-1800s. Cultivation in United States, specifically in Florida and California, began in the early 20th century. While avocados are now grown in most tropical and subtropical countries, the major commercial producers include the United States (Florida and California), Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia.

Description of the name and Synonyms

Avocados got their name from the Spanish explorers. They couldn’t pronounce the Aztec work for the fruit, know as ahuacatl, “testicle,” because of its shape. The Spanish called the aguacate, leading to the guacamole we know today.

The English living in Jamaica called the avocado an alligator pear. Some speculate that they were comparing the skin to that of an alligator. Others say alligator was a corruption of ahuacatl. In Jamaica today the people call the avocado a pear. The Dutch called it avocaat; Spain: abogado; Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay: palta ; France: avocatier; Trinidad and Tobago: zaboca, Even George Washington, First President of the United States, wrote in 1751 that agovago pears were abundant and popular in Barbados.

Worldwide Cultivation

The subtropical species needs a climate without frost and not too much wind. When frost does occur, the fruit drops from the tree, reducing the yield, although the cultivar Hass can tolerate temperatures down to -1°C. The trees also need well aerated soils, ideally more than 1 m deep. Yield is reduced when the irrigation water is highly saline. These soil and climate conditions are met only in a few areas of the world, particularly in southern Spain, Israel, South Africa, Peru, northern Chile, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico and Central America, the center of origin and diversity of this species. In the U.S., avocados are primarily produced in California, Florida, and Hawaii. Each region has different types of cultivars.Mexico is the largest producer of the Hass variety, with over 1 million tonnes produced anually.

Nutritional facts

Avocados are a good source of vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate and copper. Avocados are also a good source of potassium: they are higher in potassium than a medium banana.

Although they are fruits, avocados have a high fat content of between 71 to 88% of their total calories – about 20 times the average for other fruits. A typical avocado contains 30 grams of fat, but 20 of these fat grams are health-promoting monounsaturated fats, especially oleic acid.

Avocado Statements

  1. Avocados contain 81 micrograms of the carotenoid lutein, which some studies suggest may help maintain healthy eyes.
  2. Avocados are included in Fruits & Veggies–More Matters™ consumer educational program to promote increased consumption of fruits and vegetables for good health.
  3. Avocados contribute nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds that can contribute to the nutrient quality of your diet.
  4. Avocados, due to their mono and polyunsaturated fat content, are a healthy substitution for foods rich in saturated fat.
  5. One-fifth of a medium avocado (1 oz) has 50 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins and minerals making it a good nutrient choice.
  6. Avocados contain 76 milligrams beta-sitosterol in a 3-oz serving of avocado. Beta-sitosterol is a natural plant sterol which may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Avocados and Lutein

  • Avocados are a good way to get more lutein in the diet. An ounce of avocado contains 81 micrograms of lutein. Lutein has been shown to be concentrated in the Macula of the eye, and research suggests that it may help maintain healthy eyesight as we age.
  • Lutein is a natural antioxidant that may help maintain eye health as we get older. By adding avocado to foods like salads, salsa, soups or sandwiches you can get more of the phytonutrient lutein in your diet.

Health Benefits of Avocados

Hearth Health

Avocados contain oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that may help to lower cholesterol. In one study of people with moderately high cholesterol levels, individuals who ate a diet high in avocados showed clear health improvements. After seven days on the diet that included avocados, they had significant decreases in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, along with an 11% increase in health promoting HDL cholesterol.

Avocados are a good source of potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure. Adequate intake of potassium can help to guard against circulatory diseases, like high blood pressure, heart disease or stroke. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Association has authorized a health claim that states: “Diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.” One cup of avocado has 23% of the Daily Value for folate, a nutrient important for heart health. To determine the relationship between folate intake and heart disease, researchers followed over 80,000 women for 14 years using dietary questionnaires. They found that women who had higher intakes of dietary folate had a 55% lower risk of having heart attacks or fatal heart disease. Another study showed that individuals who consume folate-rich diets have a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke than those who do not consume as much of this vital nutrient.

Overall Health

Not only are avocados a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids including oleic acid, which has recently been shown to offer significant protection against breast cancer, but it is also a very concentrated dietary source of the carotenoid lutein; it also contains measurable amounts of related carotenoids (zeaxanthin, alpha-carotene and beta-carotene) plus significant quantities of tocopherols (vitamin E).

In a laboratory study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, an extract of avocado containing these carotenoids and tocopherols inhibited the growth of both androgen-dependent and androgen-independent prostate cancer cells.

But when researchers tried exposing the prostate cancer cells to lutein alone, the single carotenoid did not prevent cancer cell growth and replication. Not only was the whole matrix of carotenoids and tocopherols in avocado necessary for its ability to kill prostate cancer cells, but the researchers also noted that the significant amount of monounsaturated fat in avocado plays an important role. Carotenoids are lipid (fat)-soluble, which means fat must be present to ensure that these bioactive carotenoids will be absorbed into the bloodstream. Just as Nature intends, avocado delivers the whole heath-promoting package.

Increase Your Absorption of Carotenoids from Vegetables

Enjoying a few slices of avocado in your tossed salad, or mixing some chopped avocado into your favorite salsa will not only add a rich, creamy flavor, but will greatly increase your body’s ability to absorb the health-promoting carotenoids that vegetables provide.

A study published in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Nutrition tested the hypothesis that since carotenoids are lipophilic (literally, fat-loving, which means they are soluble in fat, not water), consuming carotenoid-rich foods along with monounsaturated-fat-rich avocado might enhance their bioavailability.

Not only did adding avocado to a salad of carrot, lettuce and baby spinach or to salsa greatly increase study participants’ absorption of carotenoids from these foods, but the improvement in carotenoid availability occurred even when a very small amount-as little as 2 ounces-of avocado was added.

Adding avocado to salad increased absorption of alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lutein 7.2, 15.3, and 5.1 times higher, respectively, than the average amount of these carotenoids absorbed when avocado-free salad was eaten.

Adding avocado to salsa increased lycopene and beta-carotene absorption 4.4 and 2.6 times higher, respectively, than the average amount of these nutrients absorbed from avocado-free salsa. Since avocados contain a large variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, as well as heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, eating a little avocado along with carotenoid-rich vegetables and fruits is an excellent way to improve your body’s ability to absorb carotenoids while also receiving other nutritional-and taste-benefits.

Weight Loss

  • When used instead of other fats, avocados contribute nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients and can be part of a calorie-reduced diet.
  • Avocados can be a satisfying addition to a calorie–reduced diet, when they are eaten in lieu of other fats.
  • When enjoyed in place of other fats, avocados can be a satisfying addition to a calorie-controlled diet.

Medicinal Uses

The fruit skin is antibiotic; is employed as a vermifuge and remedy for dysentery. The leaves are chewed as a remedy for pyorrhea. Leaf poultices are applied on wounds. Heated leaves are applied on the forehead to relieve neuralgia. The leaf juice has antibiotic activity. The aqueous extract of the leaves has a prolonged hypertensive effect. The leaf decoction is taken as a remedy for diarrhea, sore throat and hemorrhage; it allegedly stimulates and regulates menstruation. It is also drunk as a stomachic. In Cuba, a decoction of the new shoots is a cough remedy. If leaves, or shoots of the purple-skinned type, are boiled, the decoction serves as an abortifacient. Sometimes a piece of the seed is boiled with the leaves to make the decoction.

The seed is cut in pieces, roasted and pulverized and given to overcome diarrhea and dysentery. The powdered seed is believed to cure dandruff. A piece of the seed, or a bit of the decoction, put into a tooth cavity may relieve toothache. An ointment made of the pulverized seed is rubbed on the face as a rubefacient—to redden the cheeks. An oil extracted from the seed has been applied on skin eruptions.

Toxicity to animals

There is documented evidence that animals such as cats, dogs, cattle, goats, rabbits, birds, and fish can be severely harmed or even killed when they consume the avocado leaves, bark, skin, or pit. The avocado fruit is poisonous to birds in some cases, so on a practical level feeding the fruit to birds should be avoided. Avocado leaves contain a toxic fatty acid derivative known as persin. The symptoms include gastrointestinal irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory distress, congestion, fluid accumulation around the tissues of the heart and even death. Birds seem to be particularly sensitive to this toxic compound.

Negative effects in humans seem to be primarily in allergic individuals.

Sources: WHF, Avocado central, Wikipedia

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