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While avocados have thousands of years of traditional use and benefits, the extracted oil is a relative newcomer on the scene. This fact startled me when I first started researching avocado oil health benefits both internally and externally. Let’s dig a bit further into the little known background of this eminently modern fat.
History of Avocados
Avocados are native to South Central Mexico, with humans consuming them since around 5000 BC. Ease of cultivation fueled their popularity and rapid spread to other regions in South America. Several traditional cultures in the New World enjoyed the avocado for food including the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans.
The Aztecs used avocados for other purposes including a stimulant for libido as well as to benefit hair growth. They also spread the flesh on the face and skin as a moisturizer. Traditional medicinal uses included relief from diarrhea and the prevention of worms and other parasites.
Judge R.B. Ord of Santa Barbara successfully introduced avocados to the United States in 1871 with trees from Mexico. Farmers primarily cultivated this crop in California, Florida, and eventually Hawaii due to the avocado tree’s need for warmth and a lack of frost. (1)
The Birth of Avocado Oil
Since the flesh of an avocado is nearly one-third oil, it seems inconceivable that food manufacturers only began mass-producing avocado oil for the world market in modern times. Historically, humans primarily enjoyed the fat of avocados by eating the fruit as a whole. Nicknames such as “vegetable butter” or “butter pear” were common, but the use of the oil alone was rare. (2)
Pure agricultural necessity drove the first extraction of avocado oil. Avocado farmers needed to find a way to market the avocados which were not fit for market due to blemishes and other imperfections. Transforming unusable fruit into oil as a secondary commodity seemed the perfect solution.
Nowadays, farmers cultivate avocados for the fresh fruit market both domestically and internationally. In order to have the highest possible oil content, farmers must pick avocados when they have reached maximum maturity. Interestingly, avocados do not begin to ripen until removed from the tree.
Haas is the most widely cultivated variety of avocado in the world. It eclipses all others combined. Haas comprises 90% of avocados grown in New Zealand, 75% of those grown in Australia, and 88% of USA avocados. The popularity of Haas is due to excellent yield potential and thick skin which results in “less post-harvest imperfections and handling problems”. (3)
In addition, Haas is fattier (35 grams of fat per cup) and easier to mash. By comparison, one cup of the green-skinned Florida avocado (Dominican avocado) contains 23 grams of fat with correspondingly firmer flesh. (4)
Other less popular varieties include:
Extraction and Processing of Avocado Oil
The extraction of the fat from avocados is similar to olive oil. Manufacturers mash the flesh and slowly churn or “malax” for about an hour at temperatures not to exceed 45-50 degrees Celsius (113-122 F). This is a higher temperature than when extracting olive oil.
The resulting oil and water separate via high speed decanting centrifuge. Waste is used as mulch and fertilizer for future avocado trees. (5)
There are other ways to extract avocado oil, resulting in different grades. Extra virgin avocado oil is obtained simply by pressing the avocados. It retains the flavor and odor of the avocado itself. Furthermore, because of its extremely high smoke point, it is a great oil for frying. Other grades of avocado oil are virgin and pure avocado oil. These are of lower quality. Like olive oil, extra virgin avocado oil is the best choice for cooking.
Refined vs Unrefined
While the extraction of oil from the pulp is via mechanization at slightly elevated temperature, refined avocado oil undergoes further processing at high temperatures. Bleaching and deodorization may also occur to remove the avocado smell and flavor. Refined versions are more yellow in color and used for skin products because of high skin penetration and absorption.
Unrefined avocado oil retains the odor and taste of the fruit pulp from which it was extracted. It is also more nutritious than refined. Extra virgin avocado oil and cold-pressed avocado oil are both unrefined choices. These two types of avocado oils are optimal and are widely available for cooking and salad dressings. Fortunately, the taste is incredibly mild.
Compare the picture below of yellowish refined avocado oil to the green color of unrefined avocado oil. Notice that the unrefined oil looks exactly like extra virgin olive oil!
Be sure to always source unrefined avocado oil if possible! I buy this brand.
Health Benefits of Avocado Oil
Avocados have the highest fat content of all known fruits and vegetables. The oil is very similar to olive oil in that both contain high levels of oleic acid, a very healthy monounsaturated omega-9 fat. Oleic acid has “a beneficial effect on cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, besides the ability to facilitate wound healing”. (6)
Eight preliminary clinical studies suggest that avocado consumption helps support cardiovascular health in humans. It seems likely these benefits would extend to the oil alone as well. Exploratory studies suggest that avocados may support weight management and healthy aging. (7)
Animal studies indicate that liver damage caused by sucrose intake can be partially reversed by the consumption of avocado oil. However, pancreatic damage from sugar overconsumption did not appear to improve. (8) In rabbits, blood cholesterol levels improved with the consumption of avocado oil. (9)
Avocado oil is a moderately rich source of the potent anti-oxidant lutein, which is protective against chronic eye diseases, especially as a person ages. For example, lutein consumption is associated with a decreased chance of needing cataracts and a reduced risk for macular degeneration. (10, 11) For those genetically predisposed to these conditions, avocado oil is an excellent choice in the kitchen.
Fatty Acid Profile
The avocado oil fatty acid profile is as follows:
- Monounsaturated (oleic acid omega-9, palmitoleic acid) 76%
- Polyunsaturated (linoleic acid omega-6, linolenic acid omega-3) 12%
- Saturated (palmitic acid, stearic acid) 12%
One glaring problem is that the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is about 1:12. While not achieving the 1:1 or 1:2 ideal, the amount of polyunsaturated fat in avocado oil in total is very low.
This is important as linoleic acid should only be consumed in small amounts. In excess, it can cause obesity.
Compare the 12% polyunsaturates (PUFA) in avocado oil to other popular fats and oils:
Peanut oil: 32% PUFA (not too high but watch out for the lectins)
Buttery Spreads (margarine): 50%+ PUFA (lots of heavy processing, synthetic vitamins, additives, and GMOs …. RUN!)
Grapeseed oil: 70% PUFA (extremely unhealthy)
Extra Virgin Olive oil: 15% PUFA (mostly as omega-6)
Canola oil: 28% PUFA (2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio)
Hempseed oil: 80% PUFA (hip but definitely not healthy)
Walnut Oil: 58% PUFA (mostly as omega-3 fats)
Red Palm Oil: 10% PUFA (very strong smell and flavor)
Palm Fruit Oil: 9% PUFA (mild flavor)
Rice bran oil: 37% PUFA (industrial fat used for cooking at Chipotle)
Safflower oil: 70% PUFA (high oleic forms would be much lower)
Sunflower oil: 59% PUFA (high oleic forms would be lower)
Pumpkin seed oil: 64% PUFA (Dr. Oz loves it, but you should skip it)
Tallow: <5% PUFA (get grass-fed and this one is a go)
Lard: <11% PUFA (a must have for fried chicken lovers)
Ghee: <4% PUFA (I have a huge jar on my kitchen counter at all times!)
Coconut oil: <5% PUFA (the American Heart Association missed the mark here)
Smoke Point: Healthy for Cooking and Deep Frying?
The smoke point of avocado oil depends heavily on the quality of refinement and the way it is handled. The smoke point of unrefined oil is 480 degrees Fahrenheit and 249 degrees Celsius.
Refined avocado oil has a higher smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit and 271 degrees Celsius.
No other oil ranks higher including ghee, tallow, and lard, making avocado an excellent choice for high heat cooking and frying.
Avocado Oil for Skin
As mentioned earlier, traditional peoples used the mashed flesh of avocado for facial and skin moisturizing. Many sites specializing in homemade personal skincare have recipes containing avocado oil. (12)
Avocado Oil vs Coconut Oil
Avocado oil cannot and should not be compared with coconut oil. The fatty acid profile of these two healthy fats is completely different! This is literally like comparing an apple to an orange.
The huge differences in fatty acid composition mean that these two oils are beneficial for different reasons both internally and externally.
Hence, try to avoid comparing the two as it isn’t a helpful exercise. It is best to use both! Avocado oil is primarily monounsaturated fat and coconut oil is primarily saturated fat.
Avocado Oil vs Olive Oil
On the other hand, a comparison between olive and avocado oil is meaningful and helpful. Both have very similar fatty acid profiles. Specifically, these oils are extremely high in omega-9, monounsaturated fats (oleic acid).
Avocado oil has a much milder flavor than olive oil, which is why I use it to make homemade mayonnaise. I’ve tried making mayo with olive oil in the past, and it turned out far too strong tasting!
Olive oil seems to work better with homemade apple cider vinegar (or store bought) for making salad dressing, however.
Both are excellent for roasting veggies. I would only choose avocado oil for frying, however, as the smoke point is much higher than olive oil.
Avocado oil tends to be less expensive than a quality extra virgin olive oil. It is also (at the present time) less prone to the fraudulent practice of mixing with cheaper oils. So, if you buy avocado oil at the store, there is less chance of not getting what you paid for. Olive oil, on the other hand, really should only be purchased directly from the producer (here’s where I get mine).
Commercial Use of Avocado Oil
Many restaurants use an olive/canola oil blend for cooking. This is the case even at organic or high-end establishments. Inquiring customers are typically told that the cooking fat is “olive oil” even when such a blend is used. Don’t be fooled! Instead of these cheap blends, avocado oil represents a far healthier option.
Unfortunately, no restaurants that I know of use avocado oil for cooking at the present time. That’s too bad considering how much healthier the American public would be is they consumed fats such as oleic acid on a regular basis.
Good news! No studies reveal that avocado oil contains harmful anti-nutrients. These substances block the absorption of minerals. They can also potentially cause gastrointestinal distress.
On the other hand, peanut oil contains lectins, which are potent anti-nutrients. This is one reason why this oil is not necessarily healthier when unrefined.
Should You Be Using Avocado Oil?
Without a doubt, avocado oil gets a thumbs up for all uses in the home. Salad dressing, mayonnaise, sautés and frying are all appropriate uses. It’s also a great choice for moisturizing skin and hair. As a bonus, avocado oil is less comedogenic than coconut oil.
In sum, avocado oil is a modern fat in every sense of the word. However, it is the only one I’ve come across that qualifies as healthy on the same level as traditional fats.