The nopal cactus is more commonly known as the prickly pear cactus. It is native to Mexico and famous for its health benefits due to its high antioxidant, vitamin, mineral, and fiber content.
What is nopal?
Nopales are the pads of the nopal cactus and can be cooked or eaten raw.
Nopales or nopalitos are the pads of the nopal or prickly pear cactus. They are eaten as a vegetable and commonly found in restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets across the American Southwest and Mexico.
They can be sautéed and used in many dishes, including tacos, scrambled eggs, or as a side dish with tomatoes and onions.
Nopales can also be eaten raw. They resemble a green pepper when diced and are turned into juice, jams, or tea.
Prickly pear fruit or the small, rounded, and often colorful part of the plant can also be consumed.
Juice extracted from the fruit is a popular drink of choice for health-conscious consumers in Mexico.
One cup of raw nopales contains approximately:
- 14 calories
- 1 gram (g) of protein
- less than 1 g of fat
- 3 g of carbohydrate
- 2 g of fiber
- 1 g of sugar
- 20 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A
- 8 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C
- 141 mg of calcium
- 4.6 mcg of vitamin K
The prickly pear fruit, which comes in a variety of colors, contains the flavonoids kaempferol and quercetin, which are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties.
In a study comparing three different juices from various colors of prickly pear — red-purple, white-green, and yellow-orange — the red-purple variety had the most antioxidants.
Nopal juice may help to reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It can also be used for treating wounds.
Both parts of the nopal plant — the nopales and the fruit — have been used in traditional medicine for disease treatment and prevention.
The cactus has been used to treat:
- liver conditions
The purported benefits of fresh nopal juice include lowering blood sugar, healing wounds, and lowering cholesterol.
Human studies on the nopal cactus and its ability to treat or prevent disease are limited. Nevertheless, many studies have confirmed the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the plant.
Cactus plants have been traditionally used in Mexico for the treatment of diabetes.
In a small study of people with type 2 diabetes, two groups of participants were given a high carbohydrate breakfast. One group consumed nopal with their breakfast, while the other did not.
The group who ate the nopal had significantly lower blood sugar levels after the meal, as well as lower insulin levels, compared to the group who did not have nopal.
People with diabetes benefit from including high-fiber foods, such as nopal and prickly pear, in their diet. High-fiber diets can improve blood sugar, lower insulin levels, and improve blood lipids.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend consuming at least 25 g of fiber per day for women and 38 g for men.
Risks and considerations
The juice made from nopal is often mixed with other juices, such as pineapple, orange, or grapefruit, which can have a high amount of sugar.
People with diabetes should monitor the amount of sugar they are consuming. It is best to opt for the fresh fruit instead of juice or squeeze fresh juice at home.
In many parts of Mexico, vendors sell fresh nopal juice after the plant is rinsed with only tap water, without pasteurization or any antibacterial processing.
As cattle manure is often used for fertilizer, researchers tested for food-borne pathogens in unpasteurized nopal juice.
Their study found that 91 percent of their samples were positive for E. coli and 1 percent were positive for Salmonella. These bacteria can cause serious illnesses, so people should be sure to buy nopal and nopal juice only from reputable sources.
Nopal cactus is a versatile ingredient, whether using the pads or prickly pear fruit.
Prickly pear can be eaten raw, but the skin must be removed. Prickly pears that are not as ripe tend to be less sweet, while the fruit that is red and purple is sweeter.
All prickly pears have small, hard seeds that can be removed with a juicer or strainer, or simply spat out.
If a person grows or picks their own nopal, they will have to remove the thorns and the thick green skin.
A person should rinse the nopales thoroughly to remove the slimy texture before cooking.
Diced nopal can be sautéed with olive oil, onions, jalapeños, and tomatoes to make this salad.
Nopales and prickly pear fruit are high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
They are a healthy addition to a balanced diet and may help decrease blood sugars when eaten with a balanced meal.