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The nopal cactus is more commonly known as the prickly pear cactus. Many people believe it has multiple health benefits due to its high antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral content. However, research is limited.

The fruit of the nopal cactus is the prickly pear, and its Latin name is Opuntia ficus or Opuntia ficus-indica. People can eat both the cactus leaves and the fruit.

This article discusses the uses and benefits of the nopal cactus and its fruit.

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“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 sauté 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. Additionally, people can turn them into juice, jams, or tea.

Individuals 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 the plant’s family, Opuntia dillenii, suggested that it has many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Other findings from the research 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.

Additionally, 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.

Nopal juice and other products are available for purchase online.

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

There have been some cases of allergic or sensitivity reactions to eating cactus fruit, although these appear to be rare.

A reaction might include:

  • a skin rash
  • itching
  • swelling

If a person develops breathing difficulties, someone should seek immediate medical attention. They may be experiencing anaphylaxis, a severe and life threatening allergic reaction.

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

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High sugar content

The prickly pear fruit contains the flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin. Flavonoids are plant compounds that provide additional benefits in the body due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

In older research, scientists 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.

A 2020 study looked at the nutritional content of partially processed, frozen prickly pear juices from white, red, and yellow prickly pear pulp. They found the products had significant antioxidant content as well as antimicrobial properties, suggesting they could combine with other foods for use as a natural preservative.

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.

With this in mind, people with diabetes should monitor the amount of sugar they consume. It is also best to choose the whole, fresh fruit instead of juice. Some individuals may wish to squeeze the fresh juice directly from the fruit at home.

Risk of E. coli and Salmonella

In many parts of Mexico, vendors may sell fresh nopal juice after using only tap water to rinse the plant. Many 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% tested positive for Salmonella.

These bacteria can cause serious illnesses. Therefore, people should make sure they 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, individuals 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 an individual grows or picks their own nopal, they will also have to remove the thorns and thick green skin. They should rinse nopales thoroughly to remove the slime from the surface before cooking them. They can then sauté diced nopal with olive oil, onions, garlic, jalapenos, and tomatoes to make a salad.

Nopales also make a suitable filling for vegan tacos. People can grill sliced nopales for fajitas in a similar way to peppers. They are also a flavorsome accompaniment to scrambled eggs.

Here are some recipes containing nopal:

Nopal is available in powder form or as a supplement. People should follow the instructions on the packaging to find out how to use it safely.

The plant is also available within the following products:

  • cosmetics
  • jams
  • teas
  • seed extract oil

Nopales and prickly pear fruit are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

They are a nutritious 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 healthcare treatments.

However, these foods may produce positive effects when a person uses them alongside standard treatments.