Avocados are a staple for most vegans and lately it’s also become very trendy, making an appearance in almost every dish imaginable from burgers to cakes. We all know it contains good fats but what else is there to know?
Avocados grow on the avocado tree, native to Mexico and now cultivated across the world in tropical and subtropical climates and the Mediterranean.
Fun fact: avocado is technically a berry and its original Aztec name āhuacatl also means ‘testicle’!
All avocados are harvested when they reach maturity (full size) but are unripe. They are usually stored in coolers at low temperatures and only once they are exposed to room temperature, they ripen in about one to two weeks. If you want to speed the process up, put them near bananas or apples as these release natural ethylene gas which helps avocados to ripen. Some shops sell ripened or ‘ready to eat’ avocados which have been treated with synthetic ethylene in ‘ripening rooms’ so they are edible straight away.
Avocados are much fattier than other types of fruit. About three quarters of avocado’s energy come from fat and most of it is monounsaturated oleic acid. This is the same fatty acid that you can find in olives and olive oil. Oleic acid is not an essential fat but a healthy one as it has cholesterol and blood pressure lowering properties. And so do phytosterols – natural compounds abundant in avocados – they help lower bad cholesterol and are anti-inflammatory.
Avocados also contain some omega-3 and omega-6 fats but are not the best source. And if you eat a whole medium avocado, you’ll also get about three grams of saturated fat. It’s not much considering the general guideline is not to consume more than 20 (for women) or 30 (for men) grams per day.
Even though high in fat, avocados are healthy and all the fat has yet another benefit – it helps the absorption of health-protective carotenoids. Carotenoids are plant pigments responsible for red, orange and yellow colours in fruit and vegetables but many green vegetables are a rich source too, even if it doesn’t show. In the human body, they act as antioxidants, protecting our organs from damage by free radicals - nasty metabolism by-products. This is especially important for your blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, liver and in the prevention of cancer.
And if you add a few pieces of avocado to a meal with other carotenoid-rich but low-fat foods – such as spinach, kale, chard, various lettuces, carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers – it will increase the absorption of carotenoids from these vegetables too!
Avocados also pack a good portion of some essential vitamins. One medium avocado gives you a good dose of vitamins C, E, K, B6, folic acid and pantothenic acid (from the B group). We need these for a healthy immune system, skin, wound healing, blood clotting, bone health, converting energy from foods and more.
When it comes to important minerals, avocados are great for potassium – important for balancing fluids in your body, nerve signal transmission and kidney health; and copper – essential for healthy blood, skin, bones and nerve function. Last but not least, avocados are an excellent source of fibre.
The oil extracted from avocados has an exceptionally high smoke point which means it doesn’t degrade easily when heated. This is an issue with many plant oils but you can cook with avocado oil at high temperatures without it spoiling. Of course, it’s also excellent in cold food preparation, especially for salads, dips and dressings, or drizzled on bread. The only downside is its higher price.
To cook or not to cook?
Avocados are at their best when raw. Not only are they the most nutritious in their natural state but also the tastiest. When you cook an avocado, it can turn bitter or change taste to the point when it becomes unpalatable. It depends on the avocado variety and the length of cooking so unfortunately there’s no secret formula to recommend. Tossing it on the grill for a minute or two is probably the only type of quick cooking that may not change its taste but there are no guarantees!
There are almost endless possibilities for culinary uses of raw avocado and thanks to its creamy texture and mild taste it fits well with both savoury and sweet dishes. Apart from the more familiar uses in dishes like guacamole, sushi, salads and sandwiches, it works wonders in desserts such as chocolate mousse, ice cream and cakes, and makes a delicious base for sweet creamy fillings, smoothies or savoury creamy sauces. You can also add it to meals after cooking – think soups, pasta, rice dishes – or use as a topping.
What to look for
When choosing an avocado in a shop, it should be slightly soft but with no dark or sunken spots. If you pull back the stem, the colour you want to see underneath is light green or yellow-green. If it’s brown, the avocado is overripe or has been stored for too long and likely to have brown spots inside. If the stem doesn’t come off and the fruit feels very firm to touch, it’s unripe but you can easily ripen it at home.
Placing avocado in a fruit basket or paper bag at room temperature will speed up the ripening process. Refrigeration stops the process so a stone-hard avocado will never ripen in the fridge but a ripe one will keep for about a week when stored at low temperatures.
Never give it to animals
Avocado is a great food for us but toxic for many animals. It may cause mild symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea but also organ failure, difficulty breathing and sudden death so never feed it to dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, horses, cows, goats or birds. It’s mostly the skin, leaves and pit causing the toxicity but it’s best to stay on the safe side!