The humble avocado could spark a revolution in pharmaceuticals, according to researchers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
As detailed in a presentation at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting and exposition in Washington, DC on Monday, chemist Debasish Bandyopadhyay and his students discovered more than 130 medicinal and industrial compounds in the avocado’s seed husk — the hard shell that surrounds the seed of the fruit.
Those compounds included docosanol, an antiviral compound; heptacosane to curb tumors; dodecanoic acid that protects against atherosclerosis; and benzyl butyl phthalate, which makes plastic items like shower curtains soft.
British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is currently reaping millions of dollars a year from Abreva, a cold sore medication whose active ingredient is docosanol, Bandyopadhyay said.
He didn’t know if anyone could mass produce docosanol from avocado seed husks to challenge the over-the-counter drug. Currently, the husks are rarely used, he said.
Americans consume around 1.9 billion pounds of avocados annually, but they usually throw the seed away, said Bandyopadhyay, citing Hass Avocado Board statistics. Even the industries that make avocado seed oil for lotion, shampoo, and cooking chuck the husk, which Bandyopadhyay dubbed the “waste of the waste.”
That suggests there’s a massive untapped market that could exploit avocado and other seed-husk-based medicines and products, he said.
“GlaxoSmithKline is doing a multimillion dollar business with these drugs, and this is produced in the waste of waste,” he said. “The window is open to work on the husk. Maybe in the future we will switch to husks of other things, like peach husks.”
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As a rule, natural compounds almost always have fewer side effects than synthetic ones, Bandyopadhyay said. Naturally occurring docosanol might therefore be better for consumers than its manmade counterpart. “We know that nature’s labor is the biggest and most talented laboratory in the world,” he said.
The idea to study avocado seed husks stemmed from Bandyopadhyay and his students discussing the merits of recycling food waste. The avocado is common in the Tex-Mex cuisine popular around Brownsville, where their university is located, so it came up as a potential subject of inquiry. “I thought, ‘This poor guy, this husk,’” he said.
With the help of university funding, a lab technician at the school who happened to have an avocado tree in his yard agreed to supply samples, providing the researchers with a single source with a known history.
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Bandyopadhyay’s students gathered around 300 avocados, dried them, pulverized them and extracted seed husk oil and seed husk wax from the mixture. They then used gas chromatography mass spectrometry analysis — a process that converts substances into vapor, then zaps them with energy — to identify the chemical compounds.
He and his students scoured databases to see if anyone had reached the same conclusions before. They found nothing. Others never thought about the stuff people tossed in the trash as they whipped up their guacamole or face cream, he said.
"It could very well be that avocado seed husks, which most people consider as the waste of wastes, are actually the gem of gems,” said Bandyopadhyay.
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