It seems nearly every day there’s a new Listeria scare in the news. There has been recall after recall of foods, from hummus to ice cream to frozen vegetables, due to possible contamination by Listeria monocytogenes, an insidious bacterium that can cause muscle aches, fever, gastrointestinal issues, and even death in the most serious cases. But recent research suggests avocados may hold the key to stopping Listeria in its tracks.
A recent study by researchers at Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico found that extracts and isolated compounds from avocados, and especially their seeds, could possibly be used as a natural additive in ready-to-eat foods in order to control listeria growth. The study, titled “Inhibitory Activity of Avocado Seed Fatty Acid Derivatives (Acetogenins) Against Listeria Monocytogenes,” was recently published in the Journal of Food Science.
Researchers found that organic compounds called acetogenins in avocado flesh and especially seeds have high antilisterial properties. The exact mechanism of how acetogenins prevent Listeria growth isn’t completely clear, but scientists believe it may have to do with acetogenins’ ability to break down the bacteria’s cell walls.
This could be great news for the food industry since consumers have shown a preference for natural additives over synthetic ones and anything that can help stop Listeria outbreaks would be a godsend. The cost of recalls and other expenses related to food-borne illnesses in general is massive. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, found that in 2011 more than half of the 36 international food companies surveyed reported being impacted by a food recall during the previous five years, with 18 percent suffering a loss of between $30 million and $99 million; for five percent of the companies, the financial impact was $100 million or more, according to Fortune magazine.
That doesn’t include the medical end of the problem. In the United States, Listeria sickens about 1,600 people a year with about 260 of those infections ending in death. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable.
The bonus of using avocado seeds in this new way is that avocado industry considers them a waste product since companies that make ready-to-eat guacamole, avocado oil, and other products don’t use the seeds. If things pan out, it could lead to a new revenue stream.
The researchers in the avocado study caution that although we already consume fairly high levels of acetogenins every time we eat an avocado, more research is needed to make sure there are no adverse health effects from consuming acetogenin extracts.