Cactus Pear Research

UFS strip research

The cactus pear is a versatile and hardy plant that has been used for centuries as a food source, medicine, and livestock feed. Researchers in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, the Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences, as well as the Department of Plant Sciences, have conducted extensive research on this plant (some in collaboration with the Agricultural Research Council), exploring its various potential applications.

One of the most promising areas of research has been focused on the use of cactus pear as a food product. The plant's fruit, commonly known as prickly pear, is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and has been shown to have potential health benefits such as reducing inflammation and improving glucose metabolism. The university has also been investigating ways to process and preserve the fruit to create value-added nutritious food products such as jams, jellies, and juices. Several recipes have been developed, including side dishes such as marinated coconut chicken, cactus pear cook-in sauce and cactus pear fruit chicken skewers. There were even recipes with cactus pear as an ingredient for confectioneries such as cactus pear fruit cheesecake, cactus pear fruit gummies, and cupcakes with cactus pear fruit frosting.

In addition to its potential as a food source, cactus pear also has pharmacological properties that are of interest to researchers. The research includes antioxidant capacity, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as lowering blood sugar and antidiabetic effects. Lowering of cholesterol, lipids, lipoproteins and fatty acid deposits in the blood and artery walls, as well as diuretic effects, are noted. Therapeutic influences of cactus pear fruit and cladodes are also described as anti-cancer and anti-viral. The treatment of ulcers and rheumatism has also been researched.

One important research project by the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development is the application of the slimy mucilage extracted from the cladodes. Many functional food properties, such as the development of edible, biodegradable packaging, are being evaluated. 

Furthermore, the oil can be extracted from the seeds and is said to have good cosmetic properties. It is currently one of the most expensive oils in the world – around US$ 800. The university aims to benchmark its food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical qualities with those of other commonly used oils.

Cactus pear is also being explored as a feed source for livestock. The plant is drought-tolerant and requires minimal water and fertiliser, making it an ideal crop for arid regions. The university is studying the nutritional value of cactus pear as a feed source for cattle, sheep, and goats, and is investigating ways to improve the digestibility of the plant. Although the plant cannot solely be used to replace animal nutrition, it can provide good fodder for livestock production and represent 40%-45% of the livestock diet.

The potential use of cactus pear as a bioenergy (ethanol and methane gas) is also investigated by a PhD student, focusing on the biogas and fodder potential of spineless cactus in Africa. The plant's high sugar content and high fermentation speed make it a promising source of ethanol, which could be used as a fuel in the mining industry. For example, a region with a rainfall of 400 mm can yield 6 000 to 12 000 litres of methane energy per hectare per year from the plant, which is equivalent to diesel fuel energy. This yield is claimed to surpass the energy output of the most productive energy crop currently known worldwide.

Overall, the research being conducted by the university on cactus pear is helping to uncover the many potential applications of this versatile plant. From food products to pharmaceuticals, livestock feed, and biofuels, cactus pear has the potential to be a valuable crop for farmers and industries alike.

Read more about this in the news:


Contact us

Prof Maryna de Wit
Associate Professor
Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development
T: +27 51 401 3261

Prof Wijnand Swart
Department of Plant Sciences
T: +27 51 401 2383

Dr Gesine Coetzer
Senior Lecturer
Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences
T: +27 51 401 2897


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