The “alligator pear” or “butter fruit” – as it is nicknamed in China – is also referred to as a “grenade-like fruit” by netizens because of the explosive interest from its health-conscious fans. It is, of course, better known in English as the avocado.
According to the Global Times, the imports of avocados reached 32,100 tonnes in 2017 – up 28% year-on-year – before topping 43,000 tonnes last year. Chinese demand has been a boon for avocado exporters everywhere, especially in countries such as Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
Avocados are classified as a “superfood”: containing 0.3% sugar, 8% carbohydrates and 15% fat, plus a similar fatty acids ratio to olive oil. Due to their high potassium concentration (507mg per 100g), which helps to lower blood pressure and maintain the metabolism, they are even said to help with weight-loss – another consideration for China’s increasingly health-conscious middle-class.
Aside from the health benefits, the surge in sales has been helped by smart marketing. This is not a new phenomenon. Californian growers began financing marketing campaigns in the 1960s, having renamed the South American ahuacate, which translates as ‘testicle’, to avocado, in a bid to make it sound a bit more appetising.
When WiC first reported on the emerging taste for avocados in 2015, the Chinese tended to eat them sliced up like tofu and seasoned with soy sauce. Many consumers were a little confused with their new choice: unlike the fruits they were accustomed to, avocados were neither sweet nor sour. The texture was unusual too.
Uncertainty on how to eat them initially proved a limiting factor in lower-tier cities. The solution has been education campaigns: for example, Huxiu recounts that a department store in Harbin was able to sell 50 boxes of the fruit following a successful promotional display by a Mexican woman, demonstrating how to prepare and eat them.
Whilst Chinese shoppers have been getting more interested in the avocado, the country’s farmers have largely conceded the market to the top three producers – Mexico, Peru and Chile.
(Imports from Mexico last year reached 16,600 tonnes; while those from Peru and Chile were 13,700 tonnes and 12,700 tonnes, according to customs data.)
Avocados made an initial debut in Guangdong province in the 1920s, but it was not until 1985 that more adventurous local farmers started to harvest the crop themselves.
It takes some patience cultivating them: generally, avocado plants don’t flower until they’re two or three years-old, yielding 35-103kg of fruit per tree five years after that.
Domestic avocados have failed to have much of an impact on the local market, however, partly because most Chinese think the fruit is only grown overseas. There is also the belief that imported ones are of superior quality.
According to Shanghai distributor Fruitacloud, the reliance on imports can introduce significant fluctuations in price to the local market. It says prices tend to peak from January to April when the Chilean avocado season is about to end and “the quality of Mexican avocados is unstable”. After May the prices start to drop as shipments of the Peruvian harvest start to appear in the Chinese market.
Lower prices mean that this is the period when first-time buyers are often more tempted to give them a try.
In the four years since China’s new taste for avocados started to make headlines, consumption trends have changed markedly. In first-tier cities, for instance, younger professionals are switching to freshly pressed juices and superfood salads.
Avocado consumption and a middle-class lifestyle are viewed by better-off residents in cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen as synonymous with a more sophisticated lifestyle – whether its for their creamy taste or as a way of losing weight.
What’s certain: as the interest in avocados spreads to lower-tier cities, and the middle-class swells to an expected 630 million by 2022, sales of the fruit will boost China’s trade ties with Chile, Peru and Mexico.
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