13 April 2017: It’s been referred to as the tangled mess that choked Australia, but University of Canberra graduate Caroline Gouws says there’s a sweet side to the cactus-like fruit, the Prickly Pear.
Ms Gouws was the first student to graduate with a Bachelor of Human Nutrition (Honours) with first class honours from the University of Canberra on 13 April.
But it is her work in uncovering the nutritional content and potentially beneficial health properties of the once-rampant pest species and turning it into food that makes her most proud.
The 21-year-old has spent the last year studying a species of the Prickly Pear known as Opuntia ficus indica. It is the only species of Prickly Pear that is not considered a National Weed of Significance in Australia yet thrives in the Australian environment.
“We have this huge problem with Prickly Pear in Australia, so let’s do something useful with it,” Ms Gouws said.
“The edible species I’ve chosen to study produces a fruit, but not many people know about it and it is going to waste or is used as animal fodder. I’m looking at how we can make the short season fruit last longer and potentially turn it into a food product, with all the beneficial nutrients intact.”
Ms Gouws has discovered the best drying methods to preserve the antioxidants and bioactive content found in the fruit. She said it’s possible to develop nutraceutical (a fortified food or dietary supplement) from the fruit.
“Prickly Pear is used in traditional medicines and has been studied extensively overseas, but its nutritional components and health benefits haven’t been studied in Australia before – it’s just a weed and ultimately a waste product here” she said.
Ms Gouws has been awarded a Research Training Program Stipend Scholarship (APA/RTP-S) Scholarship to continue her research into the Prickly Pear fruit at the University, commencing a PhD this year. Funded by the Commonwealth Government, the highly competitive scholarships are awarded to PhD applicants who have exceptional research potential.
“I like the aspect that something so simple like food can be your medicine – just getting that balance right fascinates me.”
Ms Gouws is also thrilled to continue studying at the University of Canberra.
“There is nowhere else in Canberra that does health sciences as well as UC,” she said. “The cross-disciplinary teaching is great, staff are friendly and there’s a huge amount of support for students.”
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