Feb. 1, 2021

Episode 008: Superfoods and the Avocado Cartels


This week, Becca tells us the truth about “superfoods” and Sarah tackles the unfortunate side effects that can occur when a commodity product suddenly becomes ultra-popular.

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Transcript

You asked me to cover the topic of superfoods, which, as I’m sure you know, is a super loaded topic.


Superfoods

You can’t go to the grocery store anymore without seeing this term plastered everywhere. There are, of course, the quote-unquote “superfoods” themselves, there are superfood crackers, cereals, powders, even those Sweet Kale Salad Kits that you can buy. Do you know what I’m talking about? Well they apparently have 7 superfoods in them - everything but the dressing ingredients. But if I were to ask you to define what a superfood is, what would you say? Without having the knowledge that you have of them now.


So here’s the definition according to a website called Live Science: “Superfoods are foods — mostly plant-based but also some fish and dairy — that are thought to be nutritionally dense and thus good for one's health…” - so foods that have multiple health benefits. Examples of what are considered “superfoods” in the health food industry include things like kale, quinoa, acai berries, blueberries...you know the rest.  “However, there are no set criteria for determining what is and what is not a superfood” (Wanjek, 2019). At this point, you might be wondering how the food industry can label things as such when technically anything can be called a superfood.


Well! Fun fact - the term superfood is actually a marketing term, and is rarely, if ever, used by nutritional experts or food scientists. With no criteria, there has been no credible research done on superfoods as a food group, since it technically isn’t a food group. Any food could be coined a superfood at any given moment, other than maybe refined sugar - although sugar too contains an excellent source of glucose - the purest form of energy for humans. And I’d say that’s pretty super.


The first recorded use of the word “superfood” was during World War I in a poem published in a Jamaican newspaper. The poem was talking about wine and its mood-altering effects; claiming that these superfoods enhance life. / The term was first used in North America in 1949 - get this - by a Canadian. An article was published in the Lethbridge Herald (a newspaper out of Alberta) describing a muffin as “a superfood that contained all the known vitamins and some that had not yet been discovered” (Fitzgerald, 2014). I tried to research what vitamins were discovered after 1949, but I don’t think there were any. Correct me if I’m wrong. Anyways, a superfood diet of wine and muffins sounds amazing. Since the 20th century many foreign fruits or ancient grains have been rebranded as “superfoods” once they hit the Western food markets. So this really is just a Western food trend. 


The term is actually banned on European products. The European Food Safety Authority doesn’t allow labels that cannot be scientifically proven on their packaging. So even if brands can prove that their products have some of these “superfood-y” qualities, they can only state what the food does; for eg. reduces blood sugar (SOURCE). 

https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/superfoods-how-super-are-they-really-1.2835720#:~:text=The%20term%20%E2%80%9Csuperfood%E2%80%9D%20is%20banned,the%20European%20Food%20Safety%20Authority.&text=%E2%80%9CThe%20way%20it%20has%20been,back%20all%20of%20this%20up.%E2%80%9D 


In Western countries like Canada and the US, since there is no legal definition of superfood, any food can be a superfood if you’re told that it is.


In my online search yesterday I started reading the ingredients of some pre-packaged superfood products and I found one Green SuperFood powder that was literally made out of grass. There were a bunch of claims highlighted in the product description with asterisk symbols next to them - some of these claims included “ naturally helps to detoxify” and “balance[s] acidic pH levels”. So I scrolled down to where the asterisks were explained and there was an actual disclaimer that read: “These statements have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” (Yes Wellness, n.d.). They are essentially making false claims in their product description, then disclosing that these claims have not been proven...BUT at the very bottom of the page. It’s stuff like this takes the consumer as a fool. I am honestly shocked that it is even legal to do this, because imagine if medication descriptions made false claims like this?


I am not saying all this to discredit brands that used the term “superfood”. Because MANY respectable brands do use it and other marketing terms and tactics to get their products into the hands of the consumer. I personally think that if the term continues to be used, a definition with set criteria should be developed. Like a qualified superfood is x% high in x% of its nutrients. 


There was one paper that I stumbled upon that claimed that the term “superfood” is the marketing term for what medical and nutrition professionals call “functional foods”. While there is no legal definition for functional foods set out by the FDA almost all foods are considered functional foods. They are quite literally foods with some type of function - whether they help with digestion, reduce cholesterol or prevent free radical damage - they help lower healthcare costs in the aging population (the main descriptor) (Šamec, Urlić & Salopek-Sondi, 2019). But functional foods just aren’t as sexy or as exclusive-sounding as the exotic superfood.


While we are on the topic, I want to mention a few other marketing terms that are commonly used to promote consumer confusion. One of which is the term “natural”. We have talked A LOT about toxins and poisons that are produced in nature; and just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is good for you. For instance, botulism, arsenic, snake venom, mercury and anthrax are all products of nature (SOURCE).

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-natural-products-that-kill-38268113/ 


The term “multigrain” is another one, which I am sure might shock people. Multigrain means that there are many grains in a product. BUT it does not mean that any of them are whole grains. Whole grains are made up of the bran, germ and endosperm of the kernel, which contains a lot of fibre, protein and B vitamins. The grains in a multigrain product might all be refined, or stripped of a lot of the fibre and nutrients - but there’s no way of knowing.


“Detoxifying” is another. Food isn’t detoxifying. Your body detoxifies itself when you breathe, sweat, go to the bathroom, or just simply live - since your liver filters your blood. There has been no medical literature done on “detox diets”. In fact, many lower calorie liquid diets - or detox juice cleanses - have been shown to decrease the body's basal metabolic rate (AKA the metabolism) to conserve energy (SOURCE). So some of these diets may have the complete opposite effect than what is intended by following them.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-dubious-practice-of-detox 


And one of my personal favourite terms is “non-GMO”. I won’t get into this too much, since I think this would make for a great episode topic. But most of the foods that we eat have been modified to some degree. Whether these modifications occurred through selective breeding or artificial selection, people have been altering the genetic makeup of food since the beginning of human existence. Many crops would be unable to withstand climate changes and some simply wouldn’t exist. For instance, broccoli wouldn’t exist without selective breeding - it was created from mixing wild cabbage varieties (SOURCE). Purebred dogs wouldn’t exist either - as their creation also occurs through selective breeding.


https://theconversation.com/not-all-gmo-plants-are-created-equally-its-the-trait-not-the-method-thats-important-39532#:~:text=Broccoli%2C%20for%20example%2C%20is%20not,'%3B%20domesticated%20varieties%20of%20B.&text=However%2C%20these%20aren't%20the,when%20they%20think%20of%20GMOs


To sum up my intro, terms like “superfood” are a bit deceiving in that they make other foods seem “less than”; and often it is more affordable options like apples and bananas that are put into this “less super” category.


As you likely know, one of the most common “superfoods” by far is the avocado, which I understand you will tell us more about!



“Green Gold” and the Avocado Cartels


Thank you Becca! That was a perfect introduction to today’s scandal that focuses on one superfood that has skyrocketed to popularity in Canada over the past two decades. We love to mash them on toast and pulverize them into a flavourful chip dip… yes, I am talking about avocados. More specifically, I will be telling you all about how the rise of the avocado industry has created a new avenue for criminal activity driven by cartels in Mexico and how they brutally target avocado producers and distributors. 



Growing up, did you eat avocados? 


I did not! I ate guacamole at our local Mexican restaurant, but avocados were not something that we purchased, I don’t even remember them being at the grocery store until I was maybe in my late teens. 


In Canada, in 2010 the average per capita availability of avocados was 0.98 kg/year which is 980g - so I actually had some beautiful avocados in my kitchen, and I weighed them, and the average weight was 133g, so that’s about 7.5 avocados per year in 2010. By 2019, that had risen to 2.37 kg which works out to 18 avocados per year, or a nearly 240% increase. So whether we’re eating them or not, there has been a massive increase in avocado availability in Canada over that span of less than 10 years. Also in 2019, Canada imported 95000 metric tonnes of avocados, up from just 36000 metric tonnes in 2010, so again, a massive increase. 


So why did avocados become so popular, so quickly? In the early 1900s’ the avocado was actually called the “alligator pear” by most people, due to it’s rough, dark skin and this was both unappetizing and a little misleading. A group of farmers got together in 1915 and collectively decided to rebrand the alligator pear as the “avocado”. However, avocado’s still puzzled people during much of the 20th century - they were a fruit but they weren't sweet. They had a leathery skin. They turned brown quickly. You couldn’t really cook them. And, of course, the low-fat trend of the 90s was not kind to the avocado, which is rich in nutritious, unsaturated fats. 


Struggling to improve the avocado image, the California Avocado Commission hired a PR firm called Hill and Knowlton, who found a way to make the avocado the star of the Super Bowl. January was the ideal time for perfectly ripe avocados, and so in the early 90s, the PR company created the “Guacamole Bowl” idea, where they got popular NFL players to share their favorite guacamole recipes during the superbowl, and they passed out samples of guacamole to players, fans, and reporters.


It worked. Guac was the talk of the town. Sales increased and its crop value spiked rapidly. In 2018, over 100 million pounds of avocados were eaten by Americans on Super Bowl Sunday alone. 


So, where are all these avocados coming from? Avocados are a tropical fruit that does not grow well in Canada, so 95% of our avocados actually come from Mexico, which produces over a third of the world’s avocado supply. Within Mexico, the state of Michoacan (meecho-wah-cahn) is the primary avocado producer, supplying 92% of the total Mexican avocado production. According to the Wall Street Journal, Michoacan is the source of four of every five avocados sold in the US.


Now, before we get into the dark downside of avocado production, I want to give you a brief background on Mexican drug cartels. So according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mexican drug cartels are the leading supplier of heroin, cocaine, and opioids like fentanyl in the United States, and these cartels fuel all sorts of violence and extortion within Mexico, contributing to an average of about 30,000 homicides each year, in 2018 there were 36000, and in 2019 that trend continued with about 90 murders every single day. Mexican authorities have been waging a massive anti-drug campaign since 2006, which was kick-started by former Mexican president Felipe Calderon with something called Operation Michoacan, which was the first large-scale deployment of federal troops against the cartel. This conflict unleashed violence, and instead of getting rid of the cartels, it instead broke up the handful of large cartels into dozens of small ones that are more difficult to control and apparently, are much more vicious and violent than their predecessors. 


As both Mexico and the US began cracking down on illegal drugs, cartels began looking for legal commodities to focus their criminal activities on, as a way to diversify their portfolio for long-term growth - like preying on the local economy. This is where our friend the avocado comes in - the increase in both demand and retail price have made avocados a major source of income for producers and distributors in Michoacan, Mexico. Despite the relatively high cost of production, the avocado trade has been highly profitable due to increased demand for exports thanks to the avocados rising popularity . Each year, the $2.4 billion avocado industry sustains thousands of hard-working families and has become so profitable for many that avocados are often called “green gold”. 


How do the cartels get a piece of this profit? Extortion (the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats). One report I read said that at first, farmers welcomed the cartels because they were offering protection - so security for their families, their land, and their valuable crops, and in return, the cartels would ask for a tax for their services - one report I read described one group charging $250 a hectare. It’s estimated that from 2009-2013, so 4 years, the cartels “earned” or “stole” $770 million from the Michoacan avocado business, approximately $154 million per year. Over time, they just stopped providing the services and still charging the tax, and becoming more threatening towards the farmers that wouldn’t pay. Also, The Guardian reported in 2019 that up to 4 avocado trucks are stolen in Michoacan every single day - so they are also allegedly stealing product. 


Over the years, farmers and their families have been allegedly robbed, kidnapped, harassed, threatened, and allegedly, murdered. I say allegedly because most are unsolved, and according to the Washington Post, quote “roughly 98% of violent crimes including homicides go unsolved in Mexico”. I read that and I thought - that can't be true. But a non-governmental organization called Human Rights Watch reported that “Nearly all crimes go unreported, uninvestigated, and unpunished in Mexico. Mexican authorities resolve only about 1 percent of crimes, including police abuses.”


One of the most well-known and absolutely horrific crimes possibly related to the cartel involvement in the avocado trade occurred in August 2019. Cover your ears if you don’t want to hear something terrible. In Uruapan (oor-wah-pahn), which is a major avocado hub in Michoacan, when residents woke up to 19 bodies on the street, 9 of which were hanging from an overpass, and I’m not going to go into details but some were partially stripped of their clothing, some were dismembered, etc. 


A local cartel, the Jalisco (Halisco) New Generation Cartel, took credit for the carnage, hanging a sign over the scene that read “Kind people, go on with your routine. Be patriotic and kill Viagras”, which is another local gang. Some think that this awful crime was linked to the local drug activity, but Falko Ernst, a researcher for the International Crisis Group told the Guardian that it was the lucrative avocado industry that was the target. 


Individuals with competing interests against the avocado industry are at risk as well. Homero Gomez Gonzalez and Raul Hernandez Romero were an environmental activist and a tour guide at the El Rosario butterfly reserve in Michoacan where millions of monarch butterflies would travel each year. Homero Gonzalez had been an activist his entire life and it was his efforts against deforestation that led to the establishment of the Monarch sanctuary, which is a UNESCO heritage site. Both men were found murdered within the span of a week, showing the danger that can come along with being a conservationist in a region where having a vast expanse of protected land can be considered a competing business interest. Illicit avocado production has been encroaching into areas where logging has been banned, with protected forests being clear cut and secret avocado orchards being planted. While there is not established link between the avocado cartels and the butterfly sanctuary murders, one article on Wall Street International claimed that “The cartel’s strategy is simple; murdering those who are dedicated to maintaining these sanctuaries will cast fear and distinctly impair the established tourist economy, providing them with the insidious opportunity to expand their vile economic ambitions.”


Now, it’s important to note that victims of cartel harassment feel like they don’t really have anywhere to go. According to an organization called Human Rights Watch, there is widespread corruption in the police system in Mexico, so many avocado producers have turned to the creation of vigilante self-defense groups or autodefensas to fight off the criminal groups, so groups of farmers, growers, small business owners, and conservationists banding together to create systems that protect their territory, but there are reports of corruption infiltrating these groups as well. So as they see that there is profit to be made, they start to engage in criminal acts themselves or they are actually infiltrated by members of gangs. 


So this is an extremely wicked problem, I mean wicked problem in the public health sense where it refers to a problem that is SO complex and layered and impossible to solve because of all the moving parts and different players and interactions between different levels of power. With the avocado farmers and the avocado trade, we’re seeing human rights abuses that include theft, extortion, murder, we’re also seeing socioeconomic inequality that allows the cartels to thrive, police corruption, environmental exploitation, etc. 


So as someone with a bag of avocados in her kitchen right now, what can I do? What can we do as avocado consumers? Do we stop buying them completely? But then how do we support avocado farmers - that would just hurt them even more! Like I said, the problem is so much greater than avocados. The cartel is involved in everything from drugs to forestry to mom & pop tortilla shops, basically anything that’s exploitable and profitable in any way. If we were to all boycott avocados, the avocado trade would be less profitable and the cartels would shift their focus to other profitable businesses, like limes, strawberries, mezcal, and mangos.


According to Adrienne Matei in an opinion article for the Guardian and another opinion piece by Ioan Grillo for the NYT, one of the best things we can do for the Mexican avocado industry is actually work towards tightening up American gun laws. One of the primary reasons cartels are able to extort farmers is because they have massive guns that are purchased legally in the states and then smuggled across the border! According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a large portion of the guns recovered from cartels were purchased in US stores and there are estimates that suggest nearly a quarter of a million guns illegally cross into Mexico each year. So, in theory, strengthening gun laws could maybe do more than saying goodbye to avocado toast and guacamole. & if you really want to make sure you’re not supporting the cartels, don’t buy drugs! 


There are reports of some restaurants that have cut avocados out of their menus in response to the violence, so if cutting back on the avocados is something you really want to do, then by all means - stop the guac, but it’s unlikely that it will impact the avocado trade. & while I wish I could give a quick answer about how we can solve the wicked problems of farmer exploitation and environmental degradation and all of those things, I’m a little bit beyond my scope of practice. So that’s it for avocados and “green gold”!