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Ultimate Guide to Nopal Cactus: Uses, Nutrition & More
When we think about foods that are good for our health, we think about fruits and veggies. Common foods like apples, kale, black beans, and bananas might come to mind. And while those foods are good for our health, there's one sneaky food item that is good for your health that you probably didn't see coming: nopal cactus -- yes, an actual cactus -- is a healthy ingredient that can promote overall health. Intrigued? Here's everything you need to know about the nopal cactus and its health benefits.
What is a nopal cactus?
If you have ever traveled to the Southwestern United States or certain parts of Mexico, you may have noticed a particular kind of cactus that resembles prickly flat paddles. These cacti are nopal cactus, and believe it or not; they are edible and quite delicious; that is if you eat them while they are on the less mature end of their life (older nopal cactus pads are too tough to eat!)
The pads of nopal cactus are known as "Nopales" or "nopalitos." Today, you can find them in restaurants, grocery stores, and in farmers' markets in Mexico and Southwest America. Many people consume them regularly as they are a dietary vegetable that can be added into many dishes.
While the cactus pads can be grilled, sautéed, made into a jelly, or juiced, they are also edible when raw. Additionally, the cactus often have small, colorful, and rounded fruits known as prickly pear fruit that are also edible.
History of Nopal Cactus
Nopal cactus, also known as prickly pear cactus, refers to any flat-stemmed spiny cactus of the genus Opuntia family and its edible fruits. Native to the Western Hemisphere, the nopal cactus is cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries for its fruit. Therefore, the nopal cactus, while indigenous to only the Western Hemisphere, has expanded to the Caribbean and the Bahamas.
In addition to being an edible product, the nopal cactus has also been exported to other parts of the world as an alternative to fencing, food dye, and as a food ingredient. And as a result, they can now be found in areas like Australia, the Mediterranean, and Northern Africa.
This cactus has been consumed for hundreds of years. In fact, Mexico's national emblem portrays an eagle holding a snake in its beak while standing on a nopal cactus. The symbol refers to the Aztecs coming to the Valley of Mexico and is based on the legend of the founding of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. This legend says that the Aztecs, looking for a new place to call home, were told by their god to find a lake where an eagle with a snake in its beak would stand on a nopal cactus growing from a rock. When the Aztecs eventually reached the Valley of Mexico after tirelessly searching, they found a large lake where an eagle stood on a nopal cactus, holding a live snake in its beak. Taking this as a sign, the Aztecs established their city, calling it "Tenochtitlan," which means the place where a cactus grows from a stone.
Along with people eating the cactus pads, the red and juicy fruits that these plants grow (known as prickly pears, nopal cactus fruits, or sabras) are a nutritious and absolutely delicious food choice as well.
Potential Nopal Cactus Benefits
While it may sound strange to eat a literal cactus, including nopal cactus in your diet can support both your overall health and the planet’s.
As climate change continues to be one of the biggest threats and challenges of our generation, more and more people are becoming interested in sustainable crop production. The need to survive prolonged droughts and desertification has led people to become more curious about the nopal cactus plant; particularly its prickly pear fruit.
As an environmentally friendly crop, the Nopal cactus has many potential health benefits to offer, like potentially supporting intestinal, cardiovascular, hepatic health, and antioxidant activity.
Notably, its nutritional composition of polyphenols, vitamins, polyunsaturated fatty acids and amino acids has been highlighted, as these components can be linked to supporting many factors of our overall health. Plus, this cactus contains compounds that are both anti-inflammatory and have antioxidant properties; however, more evidence is needed to determine whether eating nopal cactus can convey the same benefits as its individual compounds.
And understanding that fiber is essential for gut health, it is noteworthy to know that one cup of this cactus contains 3 grams of fiber, helping you meet your daily quota of 25-38 grams per day.
Eating nopal cactus may also offer specific benefits for the following health concerns, including:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Non alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Certain cancers
- Bacterial infections
Plus, nopal cactus may help regulate blood sugars in those with diabetes.
Finally, if you enjoy your cocktails, nopal cactus may actually help combat hangover symptoms when it is consumed before you start drinking alcohol. While not fully understood, researchers believe that the severity of hangovers is related to inflammation caused by impurities in alcoholic beverages and the byproduct of alcohol metabolism. Therefore, researchers suggest that prickly pear extract may aid in alleviating a hangover by reducing the inflammatory response in the body.
The oil of nopal cactus has been linked to some amazing benefits, thanks to the vitamin E and antioxidants that are naturally found in certain parts of the plant, including the seeds. Some claims suggest that the oil contains antibacterial and anti-viral properties too.
Other Notable Uses for Nopal Cactus
In addition to being used as a food source and building material, the nopal cactus has found its way into the world of beauty and skincare. Brands like bareMinerals and Puristry put nopal extract in their cleansers and lotions, citing its anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and barrier-boosting qualities.
Why is Nopal Cactus in OLIPOP
If you are on the hunt for a drink that contains antioxidants, fiber, polyphenols, and other health benefits, then reaching for one that contains nopal cactus as an ingredient will serve you well. Along with many other good-for-you ingredients, each can of OLIPOP contains nopal cactus as one of its natural ingredients.
One of the cornerstones of OLIPOP is to support gut health, and eating a diverse array of plants and ingredients is one way to do that. That’s why we include eight plant fibers and botanical extracts, including nopal cactus, in every can of OLIPOP—to help you increase the diversity of your diet and ultimately support gut health along the way.
- Ware, Megan. “What Are the Health Benefits of Nopal Cactus?” Medical News Today, 9 Oct. 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320293#benefits.
- “Prickly Pear.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/plant/prickly-pear. Accessed 21 June 2021.
- Embassy of Mexico, United Kingdom. Symbols of Mexico . https://embamex.sre.gob.mx/reinounido/images/stories/PDF/Meet_Mexico/2_meetmexico-symbolsofmexico.pdf.
- Kumar K., Singh D. and Singh R.S. (2018). Cactus pear: Cultivation and Uses. CIAH/Tech./Pub. No73, pp 38 ICAR-Central Institute for Arid Horticulture, Bikaner, Rajasthan, India
- El-Mostafa K, El Kharrassi Y, Badreddine A, Andreoletti P, Vamecq J, El Kebbaj MS, Latruffe N, Lizard G, Nasser B, Cherkaoui-Malki M. “Nopal cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as a source of bioactive compounds for nutrition, health and disease.” Molecules. Vol. 19, no 9, 2014, pp 14879-901. doi: 10.3390/molecules190914879.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “How To Increase Volume In Meals.” https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/pdf/posthandout_session6.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2021.
- Rai A, Eapen C, Prasanth VG. “Interaction of herbs and glibenclamide: a review.” ISRN Pharmacol. Vol. 2012. 2012. Pp. 659478. doi: 10.5402/2012/659478.
- Pittler MH, Verster JC, Ernst E. “Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover: systematic review of randomised controlled trials.” BMJ. Vol. 331. 2005 Dec 24. Pp.1515-8. doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1515
- “Plant Extract May Tame Hangover Symptoms.” WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20040628/plant-extract-tame-hangover-symptoms. Accessed 21 June 2021.
- Gould, Wendy Rose. “A Cactus Extract That Soothes Your Skin? We’ll Explain.” BareMinerals, 4 Feb. 2020, https://www.bareminerals.com/blog/prickly-pear-benefits-skincare.html.
- Also known as prickly pear, nopal cactus has flat, teardrop-shaped pads.
- Commonly used in Mexican and Latin American cuisine, young nopal (nopales) are eaten as a vegetable, while its prickly pear fruit is used in sweets.
- Nopal cactus contains soluble fibers pectin and mucilage along with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.
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