Avocados would like to thank their agent, God and most importantly, their beautiful wife Tortilla. Avocados are taking a bow. Avocados have finally made it.
On Feb. 1, with an estimated 184 million people watching in the U.S., the industry group Avocados From Mexico will air a Super Bowl ad.
It seems that it will be the first commercial for produce in the history of the annual advertising bonanza. These spots cost $4.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime. The avocado industry can afford it.
In the past decade, the creamy green fruit has soared in popularity across North America. Riding the dual waves of a Mexican cuisine boom and growing demand for healthy food, Canadian imports nearly tripled between 2004 and 2013, from 19,140 to 57,520 tonnes, according to Statistics Canada.
Canadians now consume almost 250 million avocados a year. As the Washington Post reported last week, Americans are even more ravenous for the things: last year they ate some 4.25 billion. (That’s compared to about 28.5 billion bananas a year.)
“It’s been a heck of a ride, watching this,” said Dave Austin, director of marketing for the southern California-based Mission Avocados, which supplies Loblaws and Costco. “I’ve worked with a lot of produce over the years: potatoes, apples and onion. And I’ve never seen growth like this.”
While avocados are now on many restaurant menus and a common sight ripening on kitchen counters, they were once considered a delicacy in North America.
“As a kid in the ’70s in Toronto, avocado was very exotic,” said food trend expert Dana McCauley. “I don’t think I even had avocado until my teens.”
Most observers agree that the fruit’s ubiquity has been spurred by the growing international popularity of Mexican food. Taquerias and burrito stands have sprouted all over Toronto in the past decade, and guacamole has become a dinner party staple.
“When I first started, it was primarily the Hispanic influence that had such an effect on it — that seems to have been the genesis of the demand,” said Austin. “The rise of Mexican restaurants, the whole idea of eating Mexican food was just starting to blossom.”
The vast majority of avocados eaten in Canada are the Hass variety, distinguished by its dark, bumpy skin and buttery taste. Caribbean avocados have a lighter green skin, more watery taste and are eaten like fruit.
“Like everything else, when you take the fat away, there goes the flavour,” Austin said. Indeed, the oily Hass fruits are chock-full of fat. It’s mostly the healthy, unsaturated kind, however, and one study even suggested that eating an avocado a day can be good for the heart.
This perception of healthfulness, largely borne out scientific research, is another reason avocados have attained such a prominent place in the North American diet.
“As we learned more about the avocado and what it does nutritionally, it definitely supported the sale,” said Austin.
There’s another factor that’s just as important: avocados are delicious.
“They had something good to market, first of all,” said McCauley.
Added Austin: “I don’t believe pure health claims has ever sold anything. The item has to taste good.”
To that end, avocado producers have taken great pains to ensure that ripe, high-quality avocados are available year-round, even during Canadian winters.
Until about five years ago, the avocados that growers shipped to stores were mostly hard green pellets that required days of ripening before they were edible. When industry research showed that consumers wanted to eat the fruit within a day of purchase, firms like Mission Avocado set up ripening centres where the fruit is warehoused until it’s soft enough to mash up into dip. (The avocado depot for eastern and central Canada is in Burlington; in western Canada, Seattle.)
Producers also expanded the range of countries that could grow avocados for the Canadian market. Where the fruit used to come mainly from California, countries like Mexico, Peru, Chile and New Zealand have gotten into the game. (No, Canada doesn’t grow any of its own. “It’s too cold, my friend,” chuckled Austin.)
In November 2014, more than 95 per cent of the avocados imported to Canada were from Mexico. Peru has a much bigger profile in the summer, during Mexico’s down season, reaping more than a quarter of Canada’s imports last August.
“Price was an impediment in the past,” said Austin. “Now we can get a competitive-priced avocado 12 months a year from one of these sources.”
The market is still somewhat seasonal, of course: the Super Bowl remains the industry’s biggest weekend of the year. Imports ramp up throughout January in anticipation of the big game, and this year’s pricey ad buy is surely designed to cash in on the annual guacamole binge. (Avocados From Mexico confirmed that the Super Bowl commercial will not air in Canada, as many of the game’s high-profile spots do not.)
While the popular nacho dip is driving the winter avocado boom, purists like their fruit straight up, not mixed with cilantro and lime.
Enrique Solorzano, a native of Mexico City working at Emporium Latino in Kensington Market, said he’s noticed an uptick in people buying avocado for guacamole, but said he likes to eat the fruit in slices, the Mexican way.
“In Mexico, we say avocado was butter for the Aztecs,” he told the Star recently. “We eat it all the time.”
Austin said more and more people are joining him in the enjoyment of unadorned avocado.
“It was all guacamole before,” he said. “Now, those of us who really love the fruit, that’s the last way we want to eat it. We want to taste the fruit all by itself.”