Health benefits of Nopal Cactus includes its ability to treat type II diabetes, reduce glucose in sugar, sources of dietary fibers, ability to reduce cholesterol, treat BPH, act as diuretic, properties as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent and ability to cleanse body. These health benefits can be attributed to various parts of this plant – nopaleas, prickly pear cactus fruit and prickly pear flowers.
When anything is talked about cactus, first reference should point to Mexico. Of the 1600 odd cactus species, around 1000 are found in Mexico and more than 170 are native to Mexico. Aztec culture had religious beliefs attached to nopal cactus; believed that Nopal Cactus fruit or Tuna represented heart of godly Copil, and City of Mexico then Tenochtitlan was build on land of Copil’s heart by the order of God. The current coat of arms of Mexico – eagle with serpent in mouth and landing on nopal cactus – depicts this culture and is important emblem for Mexico. Today Nopal Cactus in Mexico symbolizes various health benefits associated with it.
This wild cactus is now commercially cultivated in countries like Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Tunisia, Italy, Israel, China, parts of Africa and Mediterranean and popular for its health benefits. The plant is used for its culinary uses and medicinal benefits. Today research is ongoing on studying various components of Nopal Cactus and their health benefits.
Other common names of Nopal Cactus
Nopal Cactus is often for its health benefits referred as “fruit of the earth” or “natural healer of the desert”. It is often refered as Nopal verde, green Nopal , Prickly pear cactus, Opuntia, Nopales Cactus or Paddle Cactus. Sonoran Nopal Cactus is variety found in Sonoran desert. Fruits Nopal Cactus are also known as cactus fruit, prickly pear fruit or simply prickly pear, Cactus fig, Indian Fig or Tuna. Nopal word comes from Nahuatl word nōpalli for the pads, or nostle / nōchtli for the fruit.
Commonly used parts of Nopal Cactus
The pads (representing the stem and leaves) and the fruit are considered safe as food. Nopalia or Nopolea or Nopales or nopalitos or cladodes often refer to the pad of Nopal cactus, which are considered as vegetable and eaten for various nutritional value and health benefits. Petals of the Prickly pear flowers are used in salads and extract has various health benefits.
Called prickly Prickly pear cactus fruit is eaten raw, and prickly pear cactus fruit juice has gained popularity due to the newly found antioxidant properties. These fruits contain delicious bright red coloured juice which flavor which seems to be blend of to watermelon and bubblegum.
Nutritional Value of Nopal Cactus
Nopals are not only filling but also very nutritious. They are extremely low on glycemic index and extremely good for weight loss diet. A cup of raw nopales offer only 16 calories per 100 gram serving. Nutritionally they contain most of the vitamins and minerals required for the body, though in small quantities, but almost all which makes them a complete diet. They are rich in dietary fibers as well. Major part of napoles is water, hence dried napoles powder or extract have concentrated version of these nutrients which makes Nopales supplements attractive.
Aztecs believed that volcanic soil offered nopal cactus nutrients worthy for a warrior. Nopal cactus growing in this volcanic soil contains bio active chemicals like flavanoids which offer antioxidant properties to Nopals.
Prickly pear fruits are rich in minerals, vitamins and other phytonutrients. Vitamin E or tocopherols are found in fats of Nopal cactus fruit. Other vitamins include beta carotene and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid) found in ample quantity. Trace amounts of vitamin B1, vitamin B6, Niacin, riboflavin and panthothenic acid are found in Prickly pear fruit and prickly pear fruit juice. Prickly pear fruit pulp is also excellent source of minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium.
The cactus fruit also contains various bioactive Phenol (hydroxybenzoic acids, hydroxycinnamic acids, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, flavonols, flavones, flavanols, flavanones, isoflavones, stilbenes and lignans) found in healthy fruits and vegetables. Prickly pear fruit juice gets its distinct colour from betalins – yellow (betaxanthins) and red (betacyanins) betalains which are attributed for health benefits in prickly pear fruit.
Nopal Cactus fruit seed also contains Vitamin E, essential amino acids and minerals. Nopal Cactus fruit because of its distinct colour also contains betalins and other chemicals which have medicinal benefits.
Health benefits of Nopal Cactus fruit
Mexican tribes were the first to have discovered the health benefits of Nopal Cactus. In Mexican folk medicine, it finds its use to treat various diseases including wounds, digestive and urinary tract infections.
Nopal cactus for weight loss
Nopal cactus contains dietary fibers which offers extremely low glycemic index to food. This means that Nopals are stomach filling and reduces craving. It is an excellent breakfast food and should be included in diet of people who want to reduce weight. Also this food is extremely low on calories, sodium and fats; but also serves essential vitamins and minerals to body.
Nopal Cactus and treatment of Diabetes
Clinical studies have shown that Prickly pear cactus reduces blood sugar levels. Earliest study on impact of cactus extract on blood sugar levels was published in the “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” in 1995. Subsequently animal studies on rats and rabbits showed hypoglycemic activity of cactus extract and reduced diabetes in experimentally induced diabetes. Latest human studies have shown similar results showing reduction of blood sugar levels and treating Type 2 diabetes.
Prickly pear cactus has been traditionally used by Mexicans for treatment of diabetes mellitus. Similarly Italian herbalists have been recommending Sicilian prickly pear cactus extract for treating diabetes.
Prickly Pear Cactus to reduce Cholesterol and Obesity
Nopal Cactus is being promoted to treat high cholesterol and obesity. Research studies published in Journal of Nutrition have found that pectin of prickly pear cactus reduced harmful cholesterol absorption in body. Simple study in Mexican institute found that rats fed with raw nopals had significantly low weight gain and cholesterol levels. It is believed that dietary fibers in nopals bind with cholesterol and bile salts in intestine and prevent their absorption.
Antioxidant properties of Nopal Cactus Fruit Juice
Prickly pear fruit has gained interest due to its proposed antioxidant property. Research is still ongoing and recent results are positive. Betalins, beta carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, flavonoids and other phytonutrients are believed to provide antioxidant property to Prickly pear fruit and prickly pear fruit juice. Antioxidants in prickly pear fruit juice protect body tissues from damage by free radicals. These tissues include blood vessels, lymph system, liver, cardiac vessels and tissues of eye.
Anti Cancer Benefits of Nopal Cactus
Some studies have suggested anti cancer properties of Cactus pear fruit. It inhibits growth of cervical, ovarian and bladder cancer cells and suppresses tumor growth. Research is still active to find components responsible for anti-cancer properties.
Anti-inflammatory properties of Opuntia
Numerous studies have showed analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions Opuntia. A study has identified phytosterols from Fruit extract which have antiulcer and anti-inflammatory properties. A study in Korea showed that Stem and fruit extracts of nopal showed anti-inflammatory property in terms of reducing edema and inhibiting leukocyte migration. Together with antioxidant properties, it is also believed to reduce inflammation of blood vessels and formation of plaque.
Prickly pear Juice to Reduce Hangover
Drinking Prickly pear fruit juice reduces unpleasant effects of hangover. Though research is not available to confirm the same, trying is good way of confirming such health benefits.
Benefits from High fiber content
Dietary fiber aids in prevention of various gastrointestinal disorders and essential for smooth bowel movements. Nopaleas and Nopaleas powder offer high dietary fibers and are good for digestive tract. Fibers also help reduce absorption of toxins in body and keep colon clean. Mucilage in Nopals also help maintain pH of Stomach and thus reduce acidity. Nopals are also believed to treate colitis, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Sicily folk medicine has been using Nopal cactus to treat gastric ulcers. This benefit had been attributed to mucilage and fiber present in the plant.
Treating Benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH)
Extract from Nopal Cactus flower is found to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). This extract inhibits enzymes which reduce testosterone levels. Botanical Medicine in Clinical Practice recommends nopal catus for treating BPH.
A 1996 study published in Antiviral Research, by Ahmad et.al. titled Antiviral properties of extract of Opuntia streptacantha, demonstrated antiviral properties of Opuntia. It inhibited intracellular replication of DNA- and RNA-viruses such as Herpes simplex virus Type 2, Equine herpes virus, pseudorabies virus, influenza virus, respiratory syncitial disease virus and HIV-1 in mice, horse and human. However no further research is yet available in this area. Nopal with this properties can be used to fight viral infections.
Neuroprotective effect of Nopal extract
Quercetin 3-methyl is flavonoid obtained from extract of cactus stem and fruit which is believed to be potent neuroprotector and protects brain cells. Research is still primary in this area.
Nopals are Diuretic
Nopal is mildly diuretic in nature and a study involving feeding nopal flower, leaves and fruit extract to rats, has reported this effect.
Benefits of Nopal cactus for hair growth and skin
Gel obtained from prikly pear pads or Nopaleas are used in production of hair conditioner, shampoo, face and body lotions, hair gels, shower gels, sunscreen lotions. Supplements based on Nopal Cactus Flower have been claiming benefits for hair growth and skin. They claim to strengthen hair, improve skin tone, reduce split end and nair loss. They claim that hydroxyacids in plant including glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, tartaric, mandelic and salicylic acids; boosts the activity of the enzymes in skin involved in regeneration process. However, no research has confirmed the same. Still like aloe vera, Nopal Cactus gel has been used for skin treatment and hair care.
Other benefits for which scientific evidence is not available include ability of Nopal cactus to treat Acne, arthritis, chest congestion, cuts, hypertension, insect bites, ischemic injury, rash, scrapes, skin irritations, skin pigmentation, sunburn.
Nopal Cactus Supplements
Nopalea extract is basically from broiled leaves, liquified nopal (obtained by removing outer skin), juice from liquified nopal, fresh nopal sap extract or dialyzed and lyophilized leaf tissue. Nopalea in powdered form is available in market.
Nopal flour was first retrived from Nopals in 1995, which is high in dietary fibers. This flour was first used in foods, later found use as supplements. Diet pills of Nopal cactus are basically extracted dietary fibers which absorb water and results feeling of full stomach, thus reducing dietary intake. Nopal cactus extract is used as a supplement for its nutritional value and health benefits. It is used in treatment of hyperglycemia and diabetes. It often serves as good source of dietary fibers.
Side effects of Nopal Cactus
Nopalea side effects are not very evident or investigated. However some case of toxic effects extracts on kidney and liver have been reported in rats. Outer skin contains gum glochids which can cause discomfort to throat, lips, and tongue. Care should be taken while eating them raw. Nopal diet or Nopal cactus supplements can interact with medicines for diabetes.
Uses of Nopal Cactus
Gel obtained from prikly pear pads or Nopaleas are used in production of hair conditioner, shampoo, face and body lotions, hair gels, shower gels, sunscreen lotions and even for production of biodesel.
Ever heard of Nopalea fruit juice for dogs? Nopal cactus have found interest in veterinary phytotherapy.
Colonche is an alcoholic drink made from Opuntia fruit used by Native Mexican. Pink herbal bajtra liqueur, Tungi Spirit, Madeira are similar liqueur from Opuntia are used in other parts of world. People also use Prickly pear for making of entheogenic drink – Ayahuasca as it contains traces of drugs like DMPEA and mescaline.
Nopals have been used as animal fodder in desert.
Nopals are also host to cochineal insect Dactylopius coccus costa which are used to exploit anthrachinone-derived pigments. These pigments are used in production of valuable foodgrade dye. Cochineal insects are cultivated on nopal cactus for production of this dye.
Nopals are rich in fibers, polysacchrides and natural polymers. These polymers have been traditionally used in construction industry for mixing with mortor and concrete. It is believed to improve plasticity, water absorption capacity and freeze salt resistance of mortar.
Cactus pear fruit juice is seen as alternative for natural liquid sweetner.
Culinary uses of Nopal Cactus
History of eating Nopal Cactus dates to over 10000 years old. Since then it has been consumed for various nutritional and medicinal benefits. Only during recent decade Nopal has gained popularity as antioxidant and natural remedy for diabetes.
Mexican and Central American use prickly pear cactus as their staple food. Today whole US knows it as superfood. Thanks to awareness spread by marketing of Trivita Nopalea and other Prickly pear fruit juice manufacturers.
How to select Nopalea for preparing vegetable? Choose young plant which tend to be soft. As pads grow old they become tough and difficult to cook. Nopaleas after carefully removing thorns and outer skin are eaten raw in salads or added to various Mexican food items as ingredients. Simplest way to eat nopaleas is add chop or slice them and sauté with scrambled eggs or omelets. There are plethora of Mexican cuisines with Cactus leaf and eggs or meat including huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), carne con nopales (meat with nopal), tacos de nopales, pico de gallo (raw Mexican vegetable mix) or simply salads with queso panela (panela cheese). Cactus leaf or nopals have light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. Crystallized Nopaleas or Marmalade of Nopal Cladodes are used not only to increase shelf life of Nopal but also as diet food.
How to handle Nopal Cactus thorns? Be careful while handling nopal cactus pads as they have hairy thorns. Use heavy leather gloves to scrub the thorns on nopals. Cactus leaf dethorning instruments can also be used.
How to eat Prickly pear fruit? Just remove the spines out, give a longitudinal cut and peel off the outer skin. What remain inside is the juicy flesh and the seeds. Both can be eaten raw. Outer skin contains gum – glochids, which can cause itchy mouth or lips. One can also make pulp or the juice. Health benefits of prickly pear fruit juice, remains pretty same as raw prickly pear fruit or pulp. Today this juice is available in markets in canned or bottled form. Prickly pear juice is often used in making jams, candy, jellies, ice creams and desserts. It is also used in making cocktails, sauces and other beverages. Prickly pear fruit juice is used in vinaigrettes for salads. Look for some recipes of prickly pear fruit juice flavoured cheesecakes or desserts.
Today seedless varieties of prickly pear fruits are available, however if they don’t bother you much, you can consider eating them for health benefits and their nutritional value.
The Pawnees, Papajoies and the early tribes used to dry unripe fruits of Nopal Cactus for future purpose. This was cooked along with meat and other ingredients. Dried unripe fruit was often boiled in water for 10-12 hrs and then fermented to make stimulating and nutritious tonic.
Recipes using Nopal Cactus
Making Juice similar to trivita nopalea and enjoying health benefits of nopal cactus juice
Look at the label of Trivita Nopalea, you will find the ingredients. Basically it appears to be cocktail of various fruit juices/ flavours, with base being prickly pear cactus juice. Why not try to make trivita nopalea type juice at home. Citrus fruits would blend quite well with Prickly pear juice. Take a liter of prickly pear juice. Add 100 ml each of orange juice, guava juice, lemon juice, strawberry juice and pineapple juice. Add some sugar and pinch of salt for taste. You will get a near tirvita Nopalea type flavor.
If you are regularly drinking variety of natural fruit juices or having good intake of fruits in diet, you are already getting all health benefits of trivita Nopalea!!
How to make prickly pear cactus candy
Take some chopped prickly pear fruit and boil them in water in a pan over medium heat. You would find water turning bright red, and fruit turning soft. Stain this using cheesecloth and a colander. Put this stained liquid in another pan and add 1 cup sugar for each cup of stained juice. Keep stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove pan from heat and pour quickly onto parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Heat in oven for 5 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow the candy to cook and then cut the prickly pear candies in various shapes and sizes.
How to make Nopali Salad
To start with get 2 large fresh, young and tender nopal pads. Slice a medium sized onion, 2 fresh tomatoes, ½ green, yellow and red pepper each. Cut a avocado in cubes.
Use a peeler to clean nopales and remove all thorns. Cut thick edges out of the pads. Cut in small cubical pieces and mix with onion, 1 tbsp of lime juice and allow them to marinate. Keep this atleast couple of hours to find cut pieces turn tender. Add some more lime juice, 1 tsp of vinager and some salt to taste. Mix with other items in a salad bowl and enjoy!
Recipe for Nopales Fruit Goat Cheese ice cream
Sweet-tart Nopales fruit can balance tangy goat cheese and pairs well with Prickly pear fruit. Recipe is as follows:
- In a heavy saucepan, mix 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of heavy cream and ½ cup of sugar and heat over medium heat. Stir occasionally to avoid milk from scorching.
- Separate 6 eggs yolks, egg white can be used for other food items.
- Whisk the egg yolk with 1/4 cup of sugar. Now slowing temper the eggs – slowing heat so that temperature increase but don’t cook.
- Reduce the heat under milk mixture to low and slowly add hot milk mixture to egg yolks spoonful at a time and stir to combine. Don’t rush and keep adding spoonful of milk till egg mixture has same temperature as milk. You do not want to increase temperature of egg mixture suddenly. Now pour egg mixture in remaining milk mixture and stir.
- By this custard for base of ice cream is ready. Continue to stir mixture over low heat. Stir away all edges of pot and avoid mixture to stick to pot. Bad tempering of eggs may result in broken sauce, so do not rush.
- When to know custard is ready? When it coats back of spoon. Turn off heat then.
- Now crumble 2-3 oz. of goat cheese into a large bowl. Pour our custard mixture over these goat cheese. Stir as you find goat cheese melt, but leave behind occasional lump of goat cheese which adds texture and taste to ice cream.
- Cover the custard and refrigerate until well chilled. While custard is chilling, you may add 2 pounds of prickly pear fruit pieces with a tbsp of sugar and 2 tsp of lime juice. Allow them to settle in ice cream at room temperature.
- Now with help of ice cream maker, convert this cool custard to icecream. Freeze this ice cream. Serve this ice cream with freshly cut fruit pieces.
Where to buy nopalea?
Probably check one of the supermarkets or local markets around. You would find adequate supply of nopalea these days. Look for tender and young leaves if you want to make salad. Ripe Prickly pear fruits can be used to make juice. To buy nopalea juice, there are several distributers including Trivita Nopalea. Check one of our Amazon affiliate page to buy prickly pear fruit juice online.Image Credits: Flickr - Ken Bosma, Flickr - Javier Lastras