The Avocado: “Superfood” or Dietary Sorceress?

Foodies 272 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

The evidence is that the health benefits of avocados, eaten in moderation, far outweigh the unreasonably feared downside of their (monosaturated) fat content.

The Avocado: “Superfood” or Dietary Sorceress?

[It warrants saying that this post was written before we noticed that today, March 28, the New York Times Magazine has run a strong feature article on the avocado, “How the Avocado Became the Fruit of Global Trade.” You can read it here. Unlike more prominently placed individuals, we’re not delving into trade matters. The article does not inform what follows.]

Fatty Avocado could be the nickname of a Mexican drug lord, but in fact it merely identifies the principal charge against one of the world’s favorite fruits. When, in the earliest days of the Trump Administration, relations with Mexico were strained, “But we gave you guacamole” became the joking response from the country Trump hung up on.

Wait a minute. Did you say “fruits”? Probably highest on the list of the numerous misunderstandings that have tarnished the avocado’s reputation is that it is, yes, a fruit. Like the tomato.

Among the qulaifiers most frequently cited is that a fruit, unlike a vegetable, has its seed on the inside. Botanically, the avocado is a large berry. Immediately this raises questions about certain berries, but we digress.

The Mexican avocado, which appears to be the “original” avocado, is merely the most famous of a variety of species. While popularly classed as “tropical” or “Meidterranean,” it can be cultivated in many parts of the world, well above and below the equator, and grows on a hardly tree.

People to whom “avocado” means the Mexican avocado may be surprised to learn that there is a considerable variety of species. There are a few seedless varieties, and the fruit can take the shape of a pear, an egg, a mango, or a globe. The variety found in Burma has a fruit that can reach the size of an American football.

It would be fun to describe the avocado, but it’s hard to do so while avoiding language usually reserved to describe sex—and anyway, if you’re reading this, you hardly need to have someone describe it, despite the fact that it wears many coats and even has different-shaped seeds.

For a fruit with such a low sugar index and subtle taste, it’s puzzling that it has become so controversial in health-conscious-diet circles. That’s because of the fat.

The fat in avocados

People with fat sensors on their fingertips, tongues, or palates don’t need to be told that the avocado is fatty. People indisposed toward it even call it slimy.

The California Avocado Commission says that in a medium-seized Haas avocado, there are about 22.5 grams of fat, most of it monosaturated. In 100 grams of avocado flesh, there are about 10 grams of monosaturated fat, 2.1 grams of saturated fat, and 1.8 grams of polyunsaturated fat. Pretty much however you slice it, there’s “bad” fat as well as “good” fat in avocado. And 160 calories.

The book on avocado is that because it contains monosaturated fat, it’s OK. That kind of fat actually helps replace the “bad” kind of cholesterol.

Nothing’s that simple, of course, but if you’re looking for a reason to badmouth or avoid the avocado, it’s really the high calorie content. If you’re counting calories, the cold hard fact is that there are 50 calories in one-fifth of a medium-sized avocado, or once ounce.

Why do some people call the avocado a “superfood”?

Fats and calories aside—even taken into account—there’s a consensus around the opinion expressed in Organic Facts (verbatim):

“The health benefits of avocado include weight management, protection from heart diseases and diabetes, treating osteoarthritis, and enhancing the absorption of nutrients for the body. It also reduces the risk of cancer, liver damage, and vitamin K deficiency-related bleeding. Avocado helps in keeping the eyes healthy and protecting the skin from signs of aging and the harmful effects of UV rays. It also helps in maintaining blood sugar levels and has antioxidant properties. It even increases circulation, boosts cognitive abilities, and builds stronger bones!”

Along with the monosaturated fats, avocados are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The vitamins include C, B6, B-12, A, D, K, E, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. Among the minerals are calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium (more per weight than bananas, which have more carbohydrates), copper, manganese, phosphorous, and zinc.

What makes avocados of interest to people conscious of weight and blood-sugar issues, avocados are high in fiber and notably low in carbohydrates. There are about 9 grams of carbohydrate in 100 grams of avocado--and 2 grams of protein.

Avocados are also considered “heart-healthy.” In the words of Medial News Today, “Avocados contain 25 milligrams per ounce of a natural plant sterol called beta-sitosterol. Regular consumption of beta-sitosterol and other plant sterols has been seen to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.”

The many other health benefits are listed in the articles grouped together in our Sources/Reading section below.

Is there a hitch?

If your doctor and nutritionist are OK with your eating avocado, we say, Go for it. Such as there are problems, they tend to be associated with the foods we eat avocados with.

For most people, avocados by themselves do not count as “taste sensations.” That’s why avocados are so routinely combined with other ingredients to make things such as guacamole and soups. In some cases, it’s the added ingredients that are problematic in ways that avocados themselves are not.

A traditional guacamole dip has added ingredients such as tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, and sometimes an ingredient to make it spicy “hot.” What needs to be taken into account are the carbs in onions, the (likely) sugar additives in hot sauces—and, of course, the chips.

The avocado toast fad has made it as far around the world as Bangkok’s trendy cafes, and it’s a perfect example of the pros and cons. It has probably introduced more people to the special if subtle taste of the fruit itself than any other treatment. The dietary-carbohydrate problem is, of course, the toast part, and anything else, such as mayonnaise, that is added.

If you’re particularly obsessed about either eating or being fat, the best news is that there are many other foods to eat other than avocados.


Because of my American Midwestern upbringing, I came late to avocados, and then by way of guacamole. It has taken me years to appreciate the avocado as thing in itself. The taste remains subtle, but, even completely unadorned, it also has depth.

Because of its health benefits, it’s worth getting to know plain avocado. My first idea of a “plain” avocado was a half-avocado covered with chopped garlic, olive oil, and chopped cilantro, oh, and also with a sprinkling of salt and a dash of freshly ground black pepper. That was my idea of “plain.”

True confession: that’s still my favorite way to eat avocado, and its principal benefit is that the other ingredients are healthy in complementary ways—and I’m much more likely to be satisfied with a half-fruit.

But over time, I’ve also removed those condiments, pretty much one at a time, and now savor the taste and texture of truly plain, unenhanced avocado. It’s roughly the same path I’ve trodden with tomatoes.

The benefit of eating either fruit (yes, tomatoes are fruit, too) plain is that you know what you’re getting nutritionally. No complicated math functions if you’re counting anything. And experimenting with rightly treating both the avocado and the tomato as a fruit, and eating it accordingly, is a fine way to train your palate—unencumbered by sugar and excess salt—to explore the depths of flavor in these foods all by themselves in a very-low-carbohydrate way.

I’ve had a ripe avocado in front of me the entire time I’ve been writing this. Its life expectancy at the moment is very short.      


Health benefits specifically

NY Times Magazine feature