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The nopal cactus, which is native to Mexico, is more commonly known as the prickly pear cactus. It is famous for offering health benefits due to its high antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral content.
In this article, learn more about the uses and benefits of the nopal cactus and its fruit.
Nopales or nopalitos are the pads of the nopal cactus. People consume them as a dietary vegetable, and they regularly appear in restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets across the American Southwest and Mexico.
People can sautee them and add them to a range of dishes, including tacos and scrambled eggs, or prepare them as a side dish with tomatoes and onions.
Nopales are also edible when raw. When a person dices them, they resemble a green pepper. People can turn them into juice, jams, or tea.
People can also eat prickly pear fruit, which is the small, rounded, and often colorful part of the nopal plant.
Prickly pear fruit juice is a popular beverage for health-conscious consumers in Mexico.
The purported benefits of fresh nopal juice include lowering blood sugar, healing wounds, and reducing cholesterol.
There are limited human studies on the nopal cactus and its ability to treat or prevent disease. However, the results of a 2019 review of nopal’s plant family, Opuntia dillenii, suggested that the plant has many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Other findings from the review suggest that nopal may soothe pain, boost immune activity, and protect the liver.
For these reasons, practitioners of traditional medicine have used both parts of the nopal plant for treating and preventing a range of conditions and symptoms, including:
In Mexico, cactus plants also play a role in traditional medicine for the treatment of diabetes.
The authors of a small study tested the effects of nopal on 14 people with type 2 diabetes. The two groups of participants ate a high carbohydrate breakfast. One group consumed nopal with their breakfast, while the other did not.
The nopal group had significantly lower blood sugar and insulin levels after the meal when researchers compared them with the participants who did not have nopal.
Like most fruits and vegetables, nopal and prickly pear contain some fiber, which is beneficial for managing diabetes.
These foods can be a part of a high-fiber diet that can lower blood sugar, reduce insulin levels, and improve levels of lipids, or fat compounds, in the blood.
One cup of raw nopales contains approximately:
- 13.8 calories
- 1.14 grams (g) of protein
- 0.08 g of fat
- 2.86 g of carbohydrate
- 1.89 g of fiber
- 0.99 g of sugar
- 19.8 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A
- 8 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C
- 141 mg of calcium
- 4.56 mcg of vitamin K
The prickly pear fruit contains the flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin. Flavonoids are plant compounds that provide additional benefits in the body because they have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
In a 2013 study that compared the juices from various colors of prickly pear — red-purple, white-green, and yellow-orange — the juice from the red-purple variety had the highest antioxidant content.
Producers of commercial nopal juice products often mix it with other juices, such as pineapple, orange, or grapefruit. These may increase the amount of sugar that a nopal juice product provides.
People with diabetes should monitor the amount of sugar that they are consuming. It is best to choose the whole, fresh fruit instead of juice. Some people may wish to squeeze the fresh juice directly from the fruit at home.
In many parts of Mexico, vendors sell fresh nopal juice after using only tap water to rinse the plant. They do not use pasteurization or any antibacterial processing, despite cattle manure being a common fertilizer.
Researchers conducted a study in 2016 testing unpasteurized nopal juice for foodborne pathogens. They found that 91% of the samples tested positive for Escherichia coli, while 1% were positive for Salmonella.
These bacteria can cause serious illnesses. Therefore, people should be sure to buy nopal and nopal juice from reputable sources.
People can eat prickly pears raw, but they must first remove the skin. As unripe prickly pears tend to be less sweet, people who prefer a sweeter taste should look for red and purple fruit.
All prickly pears have small, hard seeds that a person can remove with a juicer or strainer or simply spit out.
If a person grows or picks their own nopal, they will also have to remove the thorns and the thick green skin. A person should rinse nopales thoroughly to remove the slime from the surface before cooking them. They can then sautee diced nopal with olive oil, onions, garlic, jalapenos, and tomatoes to make this salad.
Nopales and prickly pear fruit are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
They are a healthful addition to a balanced diet and may help decrease blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and lower cholesterol.
While the use of nopal cactus leaves and extracts as an herbal remedy can support the management of several health conditions, people should not stop any conventional treatments.
These foods may, however, produce positive effects when a person uses them alongside standard treatments.
Nopal cactus and prickly pears are not widely available in my local area. What fruits or vegetables offer similar health benefits?