This year’s Super Bowl ads featured the usual cast of beers, sodas and fancy cars, but also a surprising newcomer: probably for the first time ever, there was an ad for avocados.
Personally, I don’t need any extra convincing to keep loading guacamole on my tortilla chips. But the avocado’s mere appearance during the Super Bowl arguably says more than the ad itself. A 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs an astounding $4 million dollars, so with this debut, the avocado industry officially entered the advertisers’ big leagues—and it’s betting on the investment paying off.
Avocados are more popular in the US today than ever before; we ate over 4 billion of these fruits last year (which is just lower than our banana and apple consumption). Guacamole may be the traditional Super Bowl food, but avocados are also showing up in fast food restaurants like Panera Bread, Burger King and Subway, and are being used more in home cooking too. Avocado production in the US is worth around $500 million, and in Mexico it’s over $1 billion—so it’s not surprising that the Super Bowl commercial made a special plug for avocados from Mexico.
As with any trend that’s grown this quickly, it’s worth asking ourselves: How did we get here, and what are the consequences of our love for avocados?
How avocados became a party staple
In 1914, the US Government banned all avocado imports from Mexico over concerns that pests could harm American crops, so until recently, most avocados sold in the US came from California. The ban wasn’t fully lifted until 2007, at which point not only did lots more avocados enter the US market, but they became available year-round thanks to Mexico’s extended growing season.
Changing US demographics were also a factor. Per capita avocado consumption is still far higher in Mexico and several other Latin American countries than it is in the US. Now, with over 17% of Americans identifying as Latinx, tastes are shifting on a national scale and Latinx-style food has entered the mainstream.
In addition, new studies came out touting the health benefits of avocados as a source of healthy fat, so the fruit was happily adopted into popular health trends.
And let’s not forget a very persistent ad campaign.
What with being plentiful, affordable, delicious and healthy, you would think that avocados would sell themselves, right? In fact, the industry spent a long time making the avocado marketable, starting with its name. “Avocado” is actually an adaptation of an Aztec word for “testicle,” while the term “alligator pear” was commonly used into the early 20th century. With unappetizing names like that, it isn’t surprising that it took concerted efforts to awaken Americans to our avocado obsession—even if it took a Super Bowl commercial to make us realize how far we’ve come.
Are there any downsides?
And this is a problem for major production areas like California, now entering its fourth year of drought.
Importing most of our avocados doesn’t help, either—it just moves the problem to other countries, where water management is even more problematic. Irrigating avocado orchards in Chile’s central valley, for instance, has used up so much groundwater that several small towns in the area have been left without any.
The Bottom Line
1. Everything in moderation.
Ultimately, eating avocados in moderation is good for our health, and isn’t harmful to the environment. While you shouldn’t be buying the whole store out of their avocado supply, the health benefits (and deliciousness) of the fruit are excellent in small doses. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults restrict fats to 20-35% of daily calories, so eat one medium-sized avocado and you’ve reached your limit on all fats for the day.
2. Buy small.
One way for US consumers to avoid contributing to inequitable water use in other countries could be to buy avocados from small farmers, who have a greater stake in making sure that water supplies last. Organic Hass Avocados from Trader Joe’s could be an option here—according to the sustainable food blog Civil Eats, Trader Joe’s was the only grocery store that responded to inquiries about sourcing avocados from small farms.
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.