Image of Nopal Cactus

6 min read

Ultimate Guide to Nopal Cactus: Uses, Nutrition & More

When thinking about foods that are good for your health, fruits and veggies come to mind. Common foods like apples, kale, black beans, and bananas for example. And while those foods are good for you, there's one sneaky healthy food item that you probably didn't see coming: the nopal cactus. Yes, it's an actual cactus! Intrigued? Here's everything you need to know about the nopal cactus and its health benefits.

What Is a Nopal Cactus?

If you've ever traveled to the Southwestern United States or certain parts of Mexico, you may have noticed a flat-stemmed spiny cactus that resembles prickly flat paddles. These cacti are nopal cacti. Also known as prickly pear cactus, the nopal cactus is a member of the genus Opuntia family. Believe it or not, both the cactus and its fruits 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 the nopal cactus are known as "Nopales" or "nopalitos." Today, you can find them in restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers' markets in Mexico and Southwest America. They're a popular vegetable found in many dishes.[1] You can grill, sauté, juice, or even turn the cactus pads into a jelly. They are also edible when raw. Additionally, the cactus often has small, colorful, and rounded fruits known as prickly pear fruits that are also edible.[1]

4 Potential Nopal Cactus Benefits

While it may sound strange to eat a literal cactus, including nopal cacti in your diet can support both your health and the health of the planet. Let's dive into the benefits:

1. Sustainable Crop

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.[2]


Here's what makes the nopal cactus such an environmentally friendly crop:


  • Drought Resistance: Nopal cactus is well-adapted to arid and semi-arid regions, where water scarcity is a significant concern. It can thrive in various soils and climates, including conditions with minimal water. This makes it a suitable crop for regions facing water shortages.
  • Low Water Requirements: Nopal cactus has lower water requirements compared to many other crops. Its ability to survive and produce in dry conditions makes it a sustainable option in areas where water conservation is crucial.
  • Minimal Fertilizers: The cultivation of nopal cactus often requires fewer inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides compared to other crops. This can reduce the environmental impact associated with agricultural practices.
  • Resilience to Climate Change: Due to its adaptability, the nopal cactus is considered resilient to climate change. It can withstand high temperatures and variations in precipitation, making it a reliable option in the face of changing climatic conditions.
  • Biodiversity: The nopal cactus can provide habitat and support biodiversity in arid regions. Its cultivation may help maintain ecosystem balance by preventing soil erosion and providing shelter for various wildlife.

2. High Nutrition

The nopal cactus is also a nutritious crop. It's rich in vitamins (such as vitamin C, vitamin A, and B vitamins), minerals (such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium), and dietary fiber. One cup of this cactus contains 3 grams of fiber, helping you meet your daily quota of 25-38 grams per day.[3] Its nutritional composition also contains health-supporting polyphenols, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and amino acids. 

3. Antioxidant Properties

Nopal contains antioxidants, such as flavonoids, betalains, and vitamin C, which help neutralize free radicals in the body. Antioxidants play a role in reducing oxidative stress, which is associated with various chronic diseases and aging.[2] 


The nutritional and antioxidant profile of nopal cactus could be why it offers specific benefits for the following health concerns, including:[4]


  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Non alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Rheumatism
  • Certain cancers
  • Bacterial infections

Nopal cactus may also help regulate blood sugars in those with diabetes.[5] The oil of nopal cactus could also offer 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. However, we need more evidence to fully understand the connection between nopal cactus and its many potential health benefits.[5]

4. Combat Hangovers

Finally, if you enjoy your cocktails, nopal cactus may help combat hangover symptoms if you consume it before you start drinking alcohol.[6] While not fully understood, researchers believe that inflammation caused by impurities in alcoholic beverages and the byproduct of alcohol metabolism are the culprits for severe hangovers. Researchers suggest that prickly pear extract may aid in alleviating a hangover by reducing the inflammatory response in the body.[7]


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 Nopal Cactus Uses

Believe it or not, the nopal cactus has many functions beyond its edible benefits. It's also used in skincare, medicine, landscaping, and more: 

Beauty and Skincare

In addition to being a food source, the nopal cactus has found its way into the world of beauty and skincare. Brands like bareMinerals[8] and Puristry[9] put nopal extract in their cleansers and lotions, citing the cacti's anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and barrier-boosting qualities.

Medicinal Uses

In traditional medicine, various parts of the nopal cactus, including the pads (nopales) and the fruit (prickly pear), have been used for their medicinal properties. Many believe they have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant effects. Nopal extracts and products are sometimes used in natural remedies.

Textiles and Dyes

The fibers from the nopal cactus are often used to produce textiles. Additionally, the plant's vibrant pigments, found in the fruits, are often used traditionally as natural dyes for fabrics and other materials.

Animal Fodder

Nopal cactus is often used as food for livestock, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions where other forage options may be limited. It provides a source of nutrition for animals, including cattle and goats.

Landscaping and Erosion Control

The nopal cactus is sometimes planted for landscaping purposes, as its unique appearance can enhance gardens and even act as a fence. Additionally, the plant's ability to grow in arid conditions makes it useful for erosion control in areas with soil stability issues.

Biofuel Production

Lastly, many are also exploring the potential of certain varieties of the nopal cactus as a source of biofuel. The plant's high water content and ability to thrive in arid conditions make it an interesting candidate for sustainable bioenergy production.

The History of Nopal Cactus

The nopal cactus is native to the Western Hemisphere where tropical and subtropical countries, like Mexico, have cultivated this cactus for its fruit 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. This symbol comes from the legend of the founding of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.


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 finally 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.[10]


Thanks to its delicious taste, potential health benefits, and many uses beyond the edible, the nopal cactus has expanded to other areas such as Australia, the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas.[5] Today, many now enjoy the cactus pads and the red and juicy fruits known as the prickly pears. 

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 seven 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.

 


Sources

  1. Ware, Megan. “What Are the Health Benefits of Nopal Cactus?” Medical News Today, 9 Oct. 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320293#benefits.
  2. 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
  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “How To Increase Volume In Meals.” https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/pdf/posthandout_session6.pdf.
  4. 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.
  5. “Prickly Pear.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/plant/prickly-pear.
  6. 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
  7. “Plant Extract May Tame Hangover Symptoms.” WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20040628/plant-extract-tame-hangover-symptoms.
  8. Ingredient Gallery. (n.d.). Bare Minerals. https://www.bareminerals.com/pages/ingredient-gallery 
  9. The amazing benefits of Nopal Cactus. (2019, March 7). Puristry. https://www.puristry.com/blogs/the-routine/4-health-benefits-of-nopal-cactus 
  10. Embassy of Mexico, United Kingdom. Symbols of Mexico. https://embamex.sre.gob.mx/reinounido/images/stories/PDF/Meet_Mexico/2_meetmexico-symbolsofmexico.pdf.
Cheat Sheet
  • 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 along with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.
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