The History and Origins of Avocado Oil

| | March 11, 2024

The avocado tree (Persea Americana) is a member of the Lauraceae family and originated in Mexico and Central America. Its thick-skinned fruit is botanically considered a berry and contains a single large seed.

Earliest archaeological records of the existence of avocados came from Coxcatlan in Mexico in approximately 10,000 BC. Evidence suggests they were cultivated as a food source since at least 5000 BC by Mesoamerican people.

The first published description of avocados, by a Spanish explorer to the New World, was made in 1519 by Martin Fernandez de Enciso in the book Suma de Geografia.

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During the subsequent Spanish colonization of Mexico, Central America and parts of South America in the 16th century, avocado trees were introduced across the region and flourished in the warm climates and fertile soils.

The Spanish also brought avocados across the Atlantic ocean to Europe and sold them to other countries like France and England. Europe’s primarily temperate climates were not ideal for growing avocados though.

How Avocados Spread Throughout the World

From their origins in Mexico and Central America, avocado trees have been imported and bred in many other tropical and Mediterranean countries throughout the world.

Historical records show avocado plants were introduced to Spain in 1601. They were brought to Indonesia around 1750, Brazil in 1809, Australia and South Africa in the late 19th century and Israel in 1908.  

Avocados were first introduced to the United States in Florida and Hawaii in 1833 and then into California in 1856.

Traditionally, avocados were known by their Spanish name ‘ahuacate’ or referred to as ‘alligator pears’ due to the texture of their skin.

In 1915 the California Avocado Association introduced and popularized the now common name ‘avocado’, originally an obscure historical reference to the plant.

Avocado History in the United States

A horticulturist named Henry Perrine first planted an avocado tree in Florida in 1833. This is thought to be where avocados were first introduced to mainland United States.

In 1856 the California State Agricultural Society reported that Dr. Thomas White had grown an avocado tree in San Gabriel, California. Though this specimen was not recorded to have produced any fruit.

In the 1871 Judge R. B. Ord planted 3 seedling avocados sourced from Mexico, two of which successfully produced avocado fruit. These first fruit-bearing trees are considered to be the initial foundation of California’s now massive avocado industry.

The first avocado orchard with commercial potential was planted by William Hertich in 1908 on the Henry E. Huntington Estate in San Marino, California. 400 avocado seedlings were planted and used to breed more avocado trees in the following years.

Throughout the 20th century, the avocado industry grew in California. Superior varieties of avocados, like the now dominant Hass breed, were sourced from Central America and Mexico and developed to increase frost and pest resistance.

Large-scale industry expansion began in earnest the 1970s with the increasing popularity of avocados as a healthy food and common salad ingredient.

The state of California is now home to around 90% of the USA’s annual avocado production. In the 2016/2017 growing season, over 215 million pounds of avocados were produced and the crop was valued at more than $345 million.

The Early History of Avocado Oil Production

While avocados have been eaten by people for thousands of years, avocado oil is a relatively new innovation, particularly as a culinary oil.

In 1918 the British Imperial Institute first drew attention to the possibility of extracting the high oil content from avocado pulp, though there is no record of avocado oil being produced at this time.

In 1934 the California State Chamber of Commerce noted that some companies were using blemished avocado fruit, unfit for sale, for oil extraction.

Early methods for extracting avocado oil involved drying avocado pulp and then squeezing out the oil with a hydraulic press. The process was laborious and did not produce significant quantities of usable oil.

In 1942 a solvent extraction method of avocado oil production was first described by Howard T. Love of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Around this time experiments were conducted for large-scale production of avocado oil due to shortages of fats and cooking oils during wartime.

Solvent extraction of avocado oil became popular for producing refined avocado oil, used as a lubricant and particularly in the cosmetics industry.

However, the solvent extraction method required significant further refinement and heating before the oil was ready for commercial use. Additionally, much of the nutritional value of the avocado was lost in the process.

Avocado oil produced by chemical solvents is still produced today, mainly for use in face creams, hair products, and other cosmetics. This clear and highly refined avocado oil is not considered suitable for cooking with.

The Origins of Cold Pressed Avocado Oil

In the late 1990s, a new cold press method for extracting avocado oil, specifically for culinary uses, was developed in New Zealand.

Modeled on the process used to make extra-virgin olive oil, this novel extraction method produced a high-quality avocado oil suitable for both cooking and as a salad dressing.

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Extracting cold pressed avocado oil involves first deskinning and destoning the avocado and then mashing the pulp. Next, the pulp is mechanically crushed and kneaded to release its oils, keeping temperatures below 122°F (50°C).

A centrifuge then separates the oil from the avocado solids and water, producing a more pure form of avocado oil without the use of chemical solvents or excessive heat.

This superior cold press extraction method has now been widely adopted throughout the industry and the vast majority of avocado oil labeled extra-virgin, unrefined or cold pressed is produced in this way.

Avocado Oil Producers and Consumers

Mexico is the largest producer of avocado oil, with other Latin American countries such as Colombia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Brazil and Chile increasing production significantly in recent years.

New Zealand remains an important player in the worldwide avocado oil market, as does the United States. Indonesia, Kenya, Israel, France, Italy, and Spain also produce avocado oil for regional markets.

The United States is by far the largest consumer of avocado oil, while Canada, Mexico, Peru and Brazil are other large retail markets in the Americas.

Gourmet avocado oil has been popular in Europe for many years, particularly in France. Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are other significant markets.

Avocado oil consumption is also growing in the Asia Pacific region in countries like China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

The worldwide market value for avocado oil is estimated to be $430 million in 2018 and is projected to reach $646 million by 2026, with a compound annual growth rate of 7.6%.

Factors Influencing Avocado Oil Consumption

The primary reason for the increase in avocado oil use as a culinary oil throughout the world in recent years is its nutritional properties and health benefits.

Cold pressed avocado oil is high in vitamin E, an antioxidant with protective effects on the cardiovascular system. It also contains good concentrations of beta-sitosterol, a phytosterol that reduces cholesterol absorption during digestion.

Lutein is another antioxidant found in avocado oil produced without excessive heat or chemical solvents. Dietary lutein is associated with improved vision and a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration.

The fatty acid profile of avocado oil produced by cold pressing is between 72% and 76% monounsaturated fats, with saturated fats at around 13%.

A higher intake of monounsaturated fatty acids to saturated ones is a central part of the highly regarded Mediterranean diet and the main reason why olive oil is considered healthy by nutritionists.

However, olive oil has a lower ratio of monounsaturates and a higher percentage of saturated fat than avocado oil. Comparing the nutritional profiles of the two, avocado oil is superior to olive oil in both antioxidants and fats.

Another factor which makes avocado oil more versatile than olive oil is its significantly higher smoke point. Smoke point is the temperature at which the structure of a cooking oil starts to break down and begins smoking.

Extra-virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point, often listed as low as 220°F (105°C). This makes it unsuitable for frying and cooking at high temperatures.

By comparison, avocado oil has a smoke point as high as 482°F (250°C), making it much better high temperature cooking oil.

Avocado oil also has a flavor which many consumers say they prefer to the taste of olive oil. It is often recommended as a salad dressing and other culinary purposes where olive oil is usually used.

Avocado Oil Market Growth

The popularity of avocado oil has grown in recent years as its nutritional benefits, high smoke point and versatility have become more widely publicised.

The olive oil industry saw global consumption increased by 73% in a 25 years period between 1990 and 2015. This growth came primarily in new markets outside of its traditional heartland in Europe.

Yet in recent years olive oil production has been hit by drought and pest problems, issues that increased prices and are forecast to get worse due to climate change. Well-publicized cases of adulterated olive oil from Italy have also tarnished its image with consumers.

By comparison, media coverage for avocado oil has been highly favorable, with nutritionists, well-known doctors and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver promoting its use.

As more and more customers become aware of avocado oil as a high-end culinary oil, demand for the product is likely to increase significantly.

However, avocado crops are subject to the same challenges as olives, with unpredictable weather patterns and droughts, particular in California, affecting production levels.

Newer avocado producers, like Colombia, Dominican Republic and Kenya have invested heavily in planting avocado plantations in the last decade though and worldwide output is expected to grow to satisfy future global demand.

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While it will likely remain a gourmet product due to its higher price point, as long as eating avocados remains popular, farmers will always have a proportion of spoiled fruit that are ideal for avocado oil production.

With its relatively short history, the avocado oil market can be considered still in its infancy. In time though it may challenge extra virgin olive oil as the culinary oil of choice for health-minded consumers.

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