Exploring the benefits from nature, and exploiting natural waste

A scientific forager with a culinary mind, Dr Quan Vuong is looking to prove there's much to benefit from understanding natural foods and industrial waste salvage, than is currently the case.

Dr Quan Vuong is exploring the benefits from a diversified array of natural products. His research interest is on compounds that have potent antioxidant capacity, and effective biological actions on human health, and which can be utilised in pharmaceutical and neutraceutical industries.

"I focus on identification, extraction and purification of bioactive compounds from various natural sources, such as medicinal plants, native flora and marine materials, as well as from the waste generated by agricultural and food production," the enthusiastic academic asserts.

"Though these constituents typically occur in small quantities, they often have big impacts on our health. They have been linked with prevention of cardiovascular diseases, microbial diseases, diabetes, obesity and certain types of cancer. Currently, 45 per cent of all anticancer drugs are derived directly or indirectly from plant compounds."

"In addition, as potent antioxidants, these compounds can prevent microbial growth, minimise the lipid oxidation, thus they have been fortified in foods to extend the shelf-life".

Tea and serendipity

Quan's research career began in 2008 when he commenced a PhD at the University of Newcastle. Capitalising on the "huge potential" of green tea, the four-year probe sought to produce safe, cheap and effective methods for the production of decaffeinated green tea and tea powder extracts.

"I developed a novel method to remove caffeine from tea," he recalls.

"I also established effective methods for the production of caffeine, decaffeinated green tea and decaffeinated green tea powders to meet changing market demands."

Quan established the optimal conditions for novel means of extracting, isolating and purifying the important components of green tea during his candidature, using a Preparative High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) System. Under these optimal conditions, all of the major bioactive compounds such as L-theanine and individual catechins, were effectively isolated for further utilisation.

"My goal is, and always has been, to add value to natural foods," he says.

Nurturing nature

Quan continued at the University after receiving his award in 2012, signing on to become a postdoctoral fellow and later a lecturer within the School of Environmental and Life Sciences. The expert has since pioneered a handful of successful research projects at the Ourimbah campus, most recently exploring the health properties and other benefits of Australian native flora.

Passionate about eucalyptus, which is mainly native to Australia, Quan is seeking to take advantage of this native plant exploring the potential within its 800 different species.

"We should be screening to find the specific eucalyptus species with the best aroma or highest level of essential oils," he shares.

"With more than 800 species, I think Australia has great potential for eucalyptus essential oil production. At present, essential eucalyptus oils have been widely used in the food, cosmetic or pharmaceutical industry."

Describing Australia as "a big, beautiful island," Quan is in the process of building a comprehensive knowledge base of its other native flora. As an island continent with diversified climatic conditions, Australia has a great advantage due to its unique botanical mixture, as many plants are only found here.

"Australia has huge potential for the discovery of important bioactive compounds," Quan states.

"Native Aboriginal people have long been using these flora as food and traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments – the West is only just starting to catch on."

In addition, Quan has conducted studies on other Australian native flora such as Davidson' plum, maroon Bush Scaevola spinescens, lilly pilly and blueberry ash. These plant species have high levels of antioxidants and capacity for use in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Worth from Waste

A large quantity of waste is generated from agricultural and food production, potentially impacting humans, animals and the environment. Quan's interest in recovering bioactive compounds from waste for further utilisation could reduce the environmental risks and simultaneously add value for the food industry.

"Companies spend an awful lot of money on food waste treatment. We hope to reduce this burden by removing and repurposing by-products," he affirms.

One of his recent projects is recovering bioactive compounds from waste produced in the macadamia industry.

"Australia is the world's biggest exporter of macadamia nuts with production of around 300 thousand tonnes a year, of which skin and husk account for 80 per cent, but they are waste, and hence discarded. Our goal is to recover bioactive compounds from this waste for further utilisation," he says.

Hoping to use the husk as an edible coating for perishable products, Quan is collaborating with other researchers and research students on scientific approaches to isolation and application.

"Fresh fruit and vegetables have a respiration cycle just like humans, so they are alive and have a defined shelf life," he explains.

"We are trying to extend this shelf life with an edible coating, however the current technology for this has major limitations when applied to fresh produce. We hope to improve and overcome these limitations by using the bioactive compounds isolated from the waste of the nut industry. For example, lignins isolated from the macadamia husk can be added to the edible film to improve its mechanical properties and to inhibit microbial activity, thus they can improve the shelf-life of fresh produce."

In addition, Quan is also working on the recovery of bioactive compounds from waste generated in the juice industry.

"We're trying to develop safe and effective methods to recover the important bioactive compounds from waste generated from the juice factories, to use in functional foods or the pharmaceutical industry," Quan elaborates.

In all these endeavours, Quan is collaborating with a range of academics, and industrial partners, including active supervision of Honours, Master and PhD students from different countries.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.