Growing up in northern New Jersey, the bustling suburbs seemed like an odd place to find a “desert cactus.” Yet, for as long as I could remember, our Aloe vera claimed its place on our living room windowsill, overlooking the newly fallen snow each winter that seemed to stretch from October to April. However, after taking Cultural & Economic Botany at Muhlenberg, I soon came to realize that my beloved aloe was not the desert cactus I had thought it to be.
Today, Aloe vera is more accurately described as a “lily of the desert” since it was once considered to be a member of Liliaceae, a family of flowering plants that includes lilies and tulips. However, more than 350 species of aloe plants have recently been grouped into a new family called Asphodelaceae (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017). Typically, these Aloe vera are found to have 12 to 16 green, pointed leaves. Within each leaf are three layers: on the outside, a thick rind rimmed in thorns protects the delicate plant tissue from the outside environment. Beyond this dense wall of protection, the latex consists of yellow sap rich in bioactive molecules such as anthraquinone. However, the bulk of the plant is composed of a clear, gelatinous substance that is said to contain up to 99% water (Maan et al. 2018). It is the gel that makes it a favorite among individuals like those who enjoy long trips to the Jersey Shore, as the gel has been used historically to soothe burns produced from the sun.
The most common species of aloe, Aloe vera (L.) Burm.f., is native to regions of South Africa, a long way from New Jersey. However, the use of such plants in the pharmaceutical and food industries has brought aloe to be grown all over the world, including regions of America, Asia, and Europe (Ahlawat and Khatkar 2011). Today, the largest producers of the aloe gel are said to be Thailand and Mexico, while the value of the aloe gel market is estimated to be over $465 million (“Aloe Vera gel market” 2017). Perhaps the greatest reason for the success of aloe gel in the food industry is due to its rich abundance of essential lipids, amino acids, minerals, as well as vitamins like A, C, and folic acid. As a result, aloe gel has been used as a functional and nutraceutical supplement to food items including yogurt, milk, and ice cream. Moreover, aloe has been used as an edible coating in order to prevent food products from browning in response to oxidation and excess moisture (Maan et al. 2018). Oddly, the addition of aloe to food products has also been noted in burgers, as the addition of aloe helps preserve the texture and shape while also enhancing the flavor of the patties (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017).
What’s next for this versatile succulent, you may ask? Today, scientists are using aloe in the field of tissue engineering to design more optimal scaffolds tissue grafting. By adding aloe to bioscaffolds, transplanted cells can more efficiently divide and invade surrounding tissues, laying down a new extracellular network to heal large wounds. The addition of aloe may help moderate the balance between absorption and degradation of these bioscaffolds, enhancing overall healing time and graft performance (Rahman et al. 2017). Additionally, many argue that the nutritional and pharmacological benefits of aloe could potentially be used to combat cancer by greatly restricting the growth of tumors (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017). However, these studies seem to contradict the proliferative effect caused by Aloe vera, as previous results suggest that Aloe vera could have oncogenic properties as well. With so many applications, it is easy to see how the aloe industry is estimated to be worth almost $110 billion (Ahlawat and Khatkar 2011). It is equally unsurprising that such a functional plant made its way out of Africa and into the window of my childhood, New Jersey home.
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