Food fads implications: The case of the Avocado

Avocados seem to be everywhere nowadays. Today, they are eaten at every meal, including breakfast (or brunch). The avocado can now serve as a bowl for your meal or a bun for your BLT. And yes, of course you could also wrap avocado in bacon!

You can do more than just eating the avocado. Its shell can be used as a cup for your latte, as first demonstrated by an Australian coffee shop, which first featured such “creation” as a joke on Instagram.

avocado latte

Melbourne’s Truman Cafe’s Avocado Latte (From: The Telegraph, “‘It’s literally coffee in a piece of rubbish’: Are Avocado lattes the latest hipster coffee trend?”)

The avocado craze has also resulted in an avocado bar (not surprisingly located in Brooklyn!) called the Avocaderia…which actually ran out of avocados on opening day. Topping the “avocado latte” and the Avocaderia, the fruit was also recently featured in the news as a weapon for idiotic, irate bodega customers in New York City! (If interested, you can see the so called “Avocado Assault” here). The list of interesting and over the top uses of avocados can go on. But let’s instead go back to the origins of the fruit, and the potential implications of this avocado trend…

Avocados are native to the Americas – particularly Central Mexico, in Puebla. Fossil evidence suggest humans have been enjoying this fruit since 10,000 BC. The avocado is actually a berry, from the  Lauracea flowering tree family.

Avocados are rich in “good fats”. These fatty fruits are also an excellent source of fiber and other nutrients, including B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, vitamin E and vitamin C. Because of their high fat content, they can also be satiating, and provide a delicious mouth feel to any meal. Such profile has increase the demand for avocados in recent years, much beyond the usual guac and chips at your favorite Mexican place.


Avocado farms in the mountains of Michoacán (From: Blue Channel 24, “Rising avocado prices fuelling illegal deforestation in Mexico” (includes video)

Much like other recent food fads, such as the craze for sushi and quinoa (see end of post for more information), the increased appetite for avocado does not come without consequence. As noted in a 2016 piece by Associated Press in the New York Post, our avocado obsession translates into deforestation and other social consequences in neighboring Mexico. The high demand for avocados leads to increased production, at the expense of pine forests in Mexico. Avocado production also takes up water resources that previously benefited the flora and fauna of the area. Moreover, beyond production, avocados also take up resources for packaging and transport, including wood, further contributing to the deforestation. Aside from environmental concerns, avocado production is also linked to the drug cartel, as reported in a 2016 article in The Guardian,

It’s a moot point whether the Mexicans who actually grow these on-trend fruits eventually harvest their fair share of the economic benefits. This lucrative trade is increasingly controlled by a drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). So when you buy a Mexican avocado, a greedy share of revenue may well accrue to criminals.

The same piece further underscores how the issue is not easily resolved by avoiding Mexican avocados. Other producers, such as those in Chile, Peru and Dominican Republic, do not have better or more sustainable practices. As noted in the same article,

The fact of the matter is that we know pitifully little about the environmental and working conditions of faceless people in faraway places who grow fruit for our tables, but I have seen enough of foreign fruit “farms” to suspect the worst. Fields of abysmally low-paid, often migrant workers who toil and live day-in-day-out in a trashed environment amid polluted water courses and pesticides; the latter decaying workers’ fingernails from dipping saplings into chemicals.

Sadly, similar working conditions may also be found in California farms, as well as the environmental effect of the water-loving fruit – that is close to almonds as “top water guzzling crops“.

Living in Puerto Rico, avocados were easy to come by, grown in someone’s backyard, or bought on the side of the road from a local farmer. I did not give a second thought to where the avocado was coming from. They were also tastier (and bigger) than the imported variety I am now buying in New York City. The quick research I present here makes me value every single avocado I eat, and think twice before falling for the silly food fads that are becoming more common each day. In this globalized world, we need to think of our food choices beyond how they benefit our health and taste buds, to think about how they can affect the communities that fulfill our ever increasing demand for these special foods.

Interested in learning more? Here is some more food for thought on how other recent food trends have had unseen social and environmental consequences:


Re-linking Nutrition and Gastronomy

In his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1895, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as

a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.

Nutrition, on the other hand, is defined as

the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically:  the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances (from Merriam-Webster)


As these definitions show, both nutrition and gastronomy care about the  “preservation of men” (and women). Early cookbooks contained recipes that used food as medicine, and many other contain introductions teaching the readers about the nutritive qualities of foods and how to best combine them in daily menus. Today, in practice, the gastronomic and nutrition views of food seem to stand in parallel silos.  Broadly speaking, those in the culinary fields talk about foods in terms of aesthetics, texture and taste, while nutritionists tend to reduce food to nutrient and caloric values. Now, I add “broadly speaking”, as this statement is an over-generalization. The culinary and nutrition “silos” are starting to interact. There are more chefs who are also registered dietitians and dietitians who venture into culinary training.  Chefs are also engaging in food policy. Examples are found in the Plate of the Union campaign (an advocacy movement that views access to healthy, affordable foods and safe drinking water as a right, and the current food system as favoring “Big Ag”), celebrity chefs engaging in humanitarian projects, such as the work of Chef Jose Andres and Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school food (and his “food revolution”), among others.

One of my ongoing research projects seeks to uncover more linkages. In a 2016 journal article, comparing dietary guidelines in the Hispanic Caribbean, I highlighted the inclusion of the Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias de la República de Cuba (the Cuban national culinary association) in the drafting of the national dietary guidelines. Their influence is seen in the guidelines messages. For example, beyond just telling the population to consume less salt, practical culinary advice is provided to achieve this recommendation:

Flavor your food with natural condiments and aromatic herbs (cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, basil, celery, parsley, among others) and citric juices. (My translation)

Beyond just asking the consumer to eat less fat and fried foods, the guide provide some advise on how to accomplish this, while also still enjoying fried foods,

Lower the consumption of fried foods. When frying, you should cut foods in large portions, so that they absorb less fat. (My translation)

Neighboring Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic have similar culinary associations are also engaged in important food work in the country, although not readily connected with the public health nutrition sector in the country. For example, the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (and other local chefs) are working to build and solidify farm to table links in a island with a weakened agricultural sector. The Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (highlighted in my previous post) is striving to document and highlight the regional dishes in Dominican Republic.

As these examples show, chefs have an important role to improve and preserve healthy food habits in the communities they serve. This role is increasingly important amid the continued influx of ultra-processed and other globalized foods that lead to the gradual displacement of traditional fresh foods. These global changes have an often deleterious effect for consumer’s health, local producer’s livelihood and the nation’s economy. In addition, a greater (re)connection between gastronomy and nutrition can also have the needed effect of  helping us move beyond the prevailing myth that delicious food is inherently unhealthy, and that nutritious, healthy food is synonymous with bland, and tasteless dishes.

This post is part of an ongoing research project, recently presented at the OxyFood 17 Conference, “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture”, as part of the talk titled “Taste, Health and Ethnic Cuisines: Comparing nutrition and culinary experts’ perceptions of Hispanic Caribbean diets”. 

A nutritious holiday find

During this year’s holiday visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this recipe manual written in 1980 by nutritionists in the town of Caguas:

The recipe manual was distributed at some point to the town’s residents, more than three decades ago, as a collection of various traditional recipes with the “highest nutritional value”, with a simple reminder that we should  always eat in moderation:

Now, the Christmas menu (and celebration) in Puerto Rico is best summarized in the chorus of El Gran Combo’s 1985 hit, La Fiesta de Pilito:

A comer pastel / a comer lechón / arroz con gandules / y a beber ron / que venga morcilla / venga de tooo

The last line, venga de tooo, roughly translated to “bring it all”, characterizes the indulgence of the holiday season. Our plates are filled with pasteles, pork, rice with pigeon peas, and blood sausages, downed with beer and rum. 

Hence, I was curious to see the nutritionist interpretation of this celebratory menu…

The suggested menus stay true to traditional favorites – with the omission of alcohol. Pork (lechón) remains at the center of the celebration, with favorites like morcilla (Blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), still present. The recipes do not reflect the fat-free craze of the 80s, featuring lard (manteca) as the cooking fat, as seen in this recipe for arroz con gandules,

Instead of changing traditional menus and recipes, it seems that the nutricionistas cagueñas that authored this recipe collection opted to add vegetables to the festivities, through simple salads to accompany the usual fare.  

While I am skeptical that green salad substituted the usual potato salad in Christmas celebrations in 1980s Caguas (or today), the intent of the menu is still commendable and relevant today. 
Happy 2017! 


A special thanks to Norma for sharing this recipe manual with me. 

Health married Design in Guatemala

Health married design.
They built a small house for children to grow healthy and tall.

Chronic malnutrition is a big problem in Guatemala, resulting in impaired physical and cognitive development. We know the solution to this issue, including simple solutions such as growth monitoring, vitamin supplementation, or just improving food access. Yet, in places like Guatemala, where the “haves” coexist in a parallel universe to the “have-nots”, hunger often goes unseen, and public unawareness (or disinterest) inevitably leads to inaction.

Along comes Despertemos Guatemala, the organization behind the public awareness campaign “Tengo Algo que Dar” (I have something to give). The campaign uses clean, simple and modern design to catch the attention of a wider audience – for example: The Story of Valerio (click on the image to watch, in Spanish):


This differs sharply from other campaigns that present very real and uncomfortable images of hungry children. And it worked. The public awareness campaign brought urban dwellers to rural, poor areas, for a weekend stay that later resulted in more exchanges between the two realities living in the same country, as seen in this second video.

IMG_20140407_101240598This successful union between health and design resulted in a second offspring: The Casita, a portable, inexpensive structure. The materials can be easily transported where needed in two pick-up trucks and assembled by community volunteers.

The design came from the minds of architects, seeking to translate health sector solutions to a practical design, addressing maternal and child health needs in the community, based on the 1000 days window of opportunity framework

The Casita is different from your typical neighborhood clinic: Smaller, open, and promises no wait. The house is built with sustainability in mind, featuring solar panels, compost bins, and eco-stoves.

Casita in Markala, Honduras.  Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

Casita in Markala, Honduras. Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

The Casita serves not only as a place for the promotion of better nutrition and health. It is a successful example of multisectorial cooperation and civic engagement. The design focuses on sustainability, underscoring the link between environment and nutrition. Through its open design, the Casitas also promote transparency and allows for a wider reach of the nutrition and health benefits to the surrounding community. It also brings food and cooking to the conversation, with the opportunity to have community gardens nearby and the showcase of eco-stoves as part of the design.

Casita in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. Image from Despertemos Guatemala.

The Casitas featured above are not in Guatemala. Despite the wonderful popular movement in the country that inspired the Casita, not a single one has been built in this country yet. Thanks to a collaboration with PRESANCA (Regional Program for Food and Nutrition Security in Central America), Casitas are being built in neighboring countries. Could this be a case of politics getting in the way?

The story continues to unfold… Interested in learning more? Follow the continued effort of Despertemos Guatemala.


Posting in commemoration of World Health Day 2014 from celebratory events at Tufts University (Boston, MA)

Memories of Acerola

Source: Morton, J. 1987. Barbados Cherry. p. 204–207. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

My maternal grandmother Mamía had an acerola tree in her backyard. It was planted by my grandfather in the 1950s, along with a lemon tree and other plants.  I have a few memories of eating fruit from this tree and still after many years acerolas continue to be one of my favorite fruits.

Recently, Elisa Gonzalez, who is a fellow Puerto Rican scholar had her article, “Feeding the Colonial Subject: Nutrition and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1926-1952”, published in El Centro journal. This wonderfully researched piece opens with the following quote,

“We believe there should be an extensive campaign promoting the cultivation of acerola trees and encouraging Puerto Rican families to consume the fruit frequently. This would be a low cost alternative to ameliorate the vitamin C deficiency suffered by most of our fellow citizens.”

Conrado Asenjo Standing Behind Bottles of Juice

Original caption (1954): The richest source of vitamin C known to man now can be added to the human diet on a mass scale and comes from a tree which has been, until recently, growing wild in Puerto Rico. It is the Acerola, somewhat like a wild cherry, which yields a juice that has measured to be 80 times more potent in vitamin C than orange juice. Discovery of the extraordinary vitamin C content was made by Dr. Conrado F. Asenjo, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine. Dr. Asenjo is shown holding a six ounce glass of acerola juice that is equal in vitamin C content to the fifteen quarts of orange juice on the table. The juice can be blended with many fruit juices as a natural protective food for infants and children.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

This quote is from Dr. Conrado Ansejo in 1947. Dr. Ansenjo, a Puerto Rican chemical engineer, is widely recognized for his role in discovering the high content of vitamin C in acerola. This among many other accomplishments resulted in the library of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus being named after him.

Scientifically known as Malpighia emarginata and also commonly known as West Indian Cherry, the fruit contains about 1000-3000 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. This concentration is quite  high compared to oranges’  50mg per 100 grams. Why the emphasis on vitamin C? At the time, Puerto Rico was suffering from a high incidence of scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency causing overall weakness, skin hemorrhages, gum disease and anemia.  Scurvy along with other vitamin deficiencies has been eradicated in Puerto Rico thanks to advances in food science and technology along with public health campaigns.

Was the tree planted in Mamía’s backyard the result of a public health campaign? Still, having acerola trees is commonplace in Puerto Rico along with having lemon and avocado trees, among others. Additionally, my grandfather was an agricultural engineer who might even have known or worked with Dr. Asenjo at the time.

There are a few things I make an effort to take back with me during visits to Puerto Rico: A “six pack” (at least) of mallorcas from Pepín, a bottle of Ron Barrilito, and a jar of locally produced acerola jam. More than for its nutritional value, acerola is a source of childhood memories from my grandmother’s home who passed away more than a decade ago. It has been wonderful to be reminded of her home through a piece of scholarly work, which has led me to learn more about my own family history, through this remembrance of the acerola tree.

Acerola jam +  toast

Acerola jam + toast