Researchers in Mexico say avocado oil could be used to counteract the effects of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Avocado is already well known for its cholesterol-fighting properties but now, the scientists say it contains antioxidents that protect cells from damage caused by environmental factors like radiation of air pollution.
MORELIA, MICHOACAN, MEXICO (REUTERS) - Mexico is the world's largest producer of avocados. In 2010, Mexico produced 1.8 million tons of avocados, which were exported primarily to the United States, Japan, Canada and Europe, according to Mexico's Secretariat of the Economy. Michoacan alone produces about 80 percent of the world's avocados, and produces about 95 percent of Mexico'savocados.
But Christian Cortes Rojo, a researcher with the University of Michoacan in San Nicolas Hidalgo, says there's more to the avocado than its flavour, texture and known health benefits.
He and his team have discovered that avocado oil contains powerful antioxidants that could help counteract the effects of diseases in which mitochondrial cell functions are disrupted.
Mitochondria are the organelles within cells which generate energy for cell growth, and convert the energy from food molecules into adesonine triphoshate, which powers most cell functions including cell division. But mitochondria contain oxygen molecules that can be transformed into unstable molecules called "free radicals" after exposure to a number of environmental factors, including cigarette smoke, radiation and pollution. The free radicals can in turn, transform the neighbouring molecules that form cells into free radicals too, thereby damaging cell function.
The phenomenon is known to be associated with the aging process and with diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.
Cortes Rojo and his team experimented with yeast cells, like those used in wine and beer production, to examine avocado oil's properties. He says yeast cells are simpler to study than other biological models but yield results than can be applied to other cells.
The team exposed the yeast cells treated with avocado oil to high concentrations of iron, which produces large numbers of free radicals. Their results showed that the avocado oil allowed the yeast cells to resist and survive the free radicals.
"The most important discovery so far is that avocado oil augments mitochondrial function of yeast cells during the reduction-oxidative period. This is important because avocado oil might be able to - in complex animals such as humans - have the same effect. In that case of illnesses in which the mitochondria is damaged, avocado oil could help organs withstand or be more resistant to oxidative stresses," he said.
Those oxidative stresses are associated with a range of diseases. Cortes Rojo says further experiments on animal models - rats in this case - could lead to new methods of prevention using the properties of avocado oil.
"We have planned to conduct these studies, and are already conducting them, to look into diabetes and hypertension. Those are diseases in which oxidative stresses clearly exist at a mitochondrial level, and that results in damage to cell functions," Rojo added.
Other mitochondrial diseases include Leigh's disease, a neurometabolic disorder and Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, which can cause vision loss.
Avocado oil, which contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as vitamin E, is known to contain powerful antioxidant properties which can serve to fortify blood vessels by removing cholesterol desposits, reducing the risk of blood vessel damage. The antioxidant binding also serves to strengthen vessel walls, making them better suited to sudden changes in blood pressure.
An estimated 2,000 tons of avocado oil are produced annually, of which Michoacan-based Avo Plus avocado company produces about 1,500 tons. Smaller quantities of avocado oil are also produced in Israel and South Africa.
Ana Lissete Miranda, the head researcher for Avo Plus, says that avocado consumers will benefit from knowing about the health benefits of the product.
"What's missing is the diffusion of this information about the properties of the oil. With scientific backing, this could be beneficial to the consumer in that they will know that they are really consuming a product that benefits their health. It's not just for salads. It can be used for cooking like any other oil," she said.
Avocados are known as "green gold" in some parts of Michoacan because of the fortune they represent to the local economy. The price of a liter of avocado oil is approximately 100 pesos ($7.15), which is comparable to the price of olive oil.
Cortés-Rojo agrees that the findings could further enhance Mexico's status as the world's leading exporter of avocados. Noting the association between olive oil consumption in Mediterranean countries and the low incidences of chronic degenerative diseases there, he say he hopes that the avocado will one day become known as the "olive oil of the Americas."