Chilean project aims to smoothen out prickly pears

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Chilean project aims to smoothen out prickly pears

There is a certain knack to opening up a prickly pear, cutting the skin and holding it in such a way that your hands don’t get pricked.

The art comes naturally to some while for others the thought of a cactus sting can be a slight deterrent, if not a ceremonious challenge.

But for a group of researchers in Chile, the biological asset of the prickly pear’s skin could be processed as a natural edible coating over the fruit itself to replace the tough exterior.

This would make the fruit more accessible to consumers while also improving its postharvest quality.

The project has been undertaken by scientists at the Universidad de Santiago with funding from the country’s Agricultural Innovation Foundation (FIA).

The team has the goal of creating a covering that enhances the fruit’s characteristics, as prickly pears are highly susceptible to microbial and physio-chemical changes due to their high pH and water content.

"Removing the skin and applying an edible covering over the fruit that keeps its life as a fresh product - as it continues its respiration and biochemical activity - wouldn't have alterations in color, flavor, nutritional value, etcetera," said project coordinator Laura Almendares.

"And the product would show a shelf life similar to the product with skin."

The FIA highlights that similar projects have been undertaken internationally but there has not yet been any experience with prickly pears, called 'tunas' in Spanish.

"This project is innovative at an international level as it's developing a technology that up until now has been non-existent for the allowed postharvest management, in the first instance, making peeled and recovered fruits available with a longer shelf life than untreated foods," said FIA innovation executive Alfonso Yévenez.

Almendares said the initiative had high commercial expectations for market niches in countries where prickly pear consumption is common, such as Mexico and Mexican communities in the U.S. Mexico is the world's top producer of the fruit while Italy is the leader in exports.

Chile however has two seasons, however production during the cold months is just 20-30% of the volume in summer. Israel also has dual seasons thanks to nitrogen applications.

Figures from Chile's National Statistics Institute show there are around 1,495 hectares of the crop planted in Chile, from the I (Tarapacá) region in the north to the VIII (Biobío) region in the south. The biggest surface area is in the Metropolitana region at 644.1 hectares, followed by the IV (Coquimbo) region at 581.4 hectares.

The project will specifically aim at adding value for prickly pear production in the areas of Polpaico, Tiltil and Rungue in the Metropolitana (Santiago) region.

Photo: FIA

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