Some types of prickly pear are considered a weed, but a researcher, who is also a farmer, believes there are potential health benefits from the plant that need to be explored.
- Some types of prickly pear are considered a pest in NSW and Qld
- Edible prickly pear have been shown to lower cholesterol
- Researchers are trying to develop methods to extend its shelf life
In Australia, the prickly pear is often used as stock feed and other species are regarded as a pest, but the potential use of the prickly pear for medicinal purposes is now being researched by Natalie Alexopolous.
Dr Alexopolous moved to a remote property in Wedderburn in Victoria to start up her own olive grove.
What she did not expect to find was hundreds of planted opuntia ficus-indica — or prickly pear — on the farm, a species of cactus that many in Australia would consider a pest.
Prickly pear research
“I knew that there had to be some value in them but to be honest I didn’t really think too much about it for a few years,” Ms Alexopolous said.
“As the [olive] business started evolving and we wanted to make some new products and diversify, that’s when I started to think about what these plants be useful for — that’s where my research background kicked in.”
After a little digging, she discovered the plant had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries around the world.
So, for the past three years, she has been collaborating with the University of Canberra to further identify the benefits of the prickly pear cactus.
“The cactus we are growing is the edible prickly pear fruits, there are other prickly pear species that are considered pests and have caused trouble in places like New South Wales and Queensland — so there is a negative connotation to the pear,” she said.
But she said as time went on people were starting to realise there were health benefits associated with this plant.
“The pads and the fruit are very high in fibre and have been shown to lower cholesterol,” she said.
“We’ve also just started some clinical trials to see what it does to blood sugar and sugar levels for an athlete’s recovery time.
“I’m also in my own venture, have produced a skincare range with the fruit that is very good for the skin.”
University of Canberra Associate Professor Food Science and Human Nutrition Nenad Naumovski has been collaborating with Dr Alexopolous and is also looking at how to extend the lifetime of the plant.
“One of the aspects of my research is we are looking at are better ways to extend the shelf life of commercially grown prickly pear and their leaves on-farm,” Mr Naumovski said.
Improving shelf life
“Most of the problems farmers are facing is that this type or food production is easily degradable, and we are looking for different opportunities and easy to use technology to extend the shelf life.”
He said the prickly pear contained a lot of water and when harvested it broke down easily and then could not reach its full potential.
“There are so many benefits if we can preserve the plant, like potentially protective effects against type two diabetes, reduction of dramatic pain and improvements in things like asthma.”
He said growing up in Croatia, his family would walk home from the beach and pick the fruit from the prickly pear tree.
“The very large cacti plants, in summer, were packed with fruit and we used put them in towels and bring it home and mum would serve it with ice-cream,” he said.
“A majority of it is oriented towards stock feed for farmers.”
The pair have just started clinical trials and hope to further provide case studies in Australia for the benefits of the fruit.
“It’s largely underutilised here in Australia, what we’d like to achieve is to further look at the benefits of consumption of this type of food and it’s health effects,” Dr Alexopolous said.