Influence of the physico-chemical characteristics of nopalitos on its eating quality
Mpemba, Onele Suzan
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More than 820 million people in the world are suffering from hunger and 1.3 billion from food insecurity. People experiencing food security have sufficient access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food in both quality and quantity. In Africa, food insecurity is on the rise because of population increase, global warming and desertification. There is a need for droughtresilient crops which will be less impacted by climate change as only climate-smart food systems can lead to food security. The cactus pear is capable of providing sustainable food production in arid and semi-arid areas. Cactus pears (Opuntia ficus-indica) produces young and edible cladodes known as nopalitos. Nopalitos are a source of sustainable, economic and nutritious food and could be an important food source to livestock and human alike. In Mexico, nopalitos are a traditional food, eaten fresh or cooked in dishes enjoyed through many generations. The aim of the study was to identify the most ideal size, cultivar and harvesting season for optimal eating qualities. The characteristics of nopalitos from the two cultivars (Fusicaulis and Morado) were compared to be able to select the most ideal eating cultivar. Nopalitos were also compared to different well-known vegetables to describe the texture, taste and juiciness. Consumers are reluctant to try unknown food, therefore, a description of how nopalitos taste was attempted in this study. The ideal post-harvest handling, the preferred cooking methods and the optimal cooking times to use in cooking instructions and recipes for South African consumers were determined in this study. Physicochemical characteristics (length, weight, width, diameter, surface area, volume, colour, firmness, compressibility, TA, pH, TSS, mucilage, moisture and viscosity) of Fusicaulis and Morado nopalitos were determined and compared between size (9 cm, 12 cm, 15 cm, 18 cm, 21 cm and 24 cm), two seasons (autumn and spring) and over two years (2017 & 2018). The nopalitos were compared to different vegetables (baby marrow, carrot, celery, cucumber, green beans, green pepper, onion and tomato) in order to observe the differences and similarities of nopalitos compared to other popular vegetables. The influence of cooking methods and different time increments on the texture of nopalitos and green peppers was compared. The important differences between the characteristics of the two cultivars were influenced by size and season as opposed to cultivar and year. The optimal size and cultivar were observed between 15 cm and 18 cm of Morado nopalitos. There were similarities observed between nopalitos and vegetables in the turgidity, texture and taste. The taste of nopalitos could be described as being more sour than tomatoes, and as having comparable sugar content compared to celery, green pepper and green beans. Nopalitos can be cooked using the following methods roasting, boiling and shallow frying over a shorter cooking time. Both cultivars of Opuntia ficus-indica were observed to be suitable for use as fresh vegetable source between the size of 15 cm and 18 cm as they were thinner, brighter green, softer and less slimy. It is ideal to harvest nopalitos over the autumn season because nopalitos had highest quality attributes. Nopalitos can be prepared similarly to most vegetables using the simple cooking methods (roasting, boiling and shallow frying) for a limited cooking period. Nopalitos have potential as a source of fresh vegetables in South Africa because of similarities in turgidity, texture and taste to popular vegetables. Cactus pear plants have been thriving in the world for decades and could contribute to decreasing the number of people suffering from food insecurity.