What Is Prickly Pear? The Native American Superfruit
If you’ve ever visited Mexico or the Southwest United States, you may have come across a type of pink cactus fruit called prickly pear. It has a long history of use in folklore medicine and according to historians, was relied upon by Native Americans who used the fruit not only for food, but also as medicine, a source of water, and as a construction material.
Today, prickly pear is grown for a variety of purposes, such as to make juice, oil extract, supplements and beauty products.
Why are prickly pears good for you? Some research shows this fruit has immune-boosting effects, a rich supply of antioxidants, and compounds that help defend against diabetes, high cholesterol, and digestive issues like diarrhea and ulcers.
What Is Prickly Pear?
Prickly pear, which has the scientific name opuntia, is a member of the cactus (Cactaceae) plant family. This cactus, which is native to the Western Hemisphere but now grows around the world, can grow up to 18 feet high. It produces yellow, red or purple flowers and bright pink/red, spiky fruits.
This cactus goes by several names, including tuna, sabra, nopal and paddle cactus. “Tuna” and “pears” describe the spiky fruits themselves, while the cactus’s branches are known as pads or nopales. Technically the pads are types of succulents, or evergreen stems.
While there are at least a dozen opuntia species in existence, the type most widely grown for edible purposes is called Indian fig (O. ficus-indica), which is considered “an important food for many peoples in tropical and subtropical countries.”
What does prickly pear taste like? These small fruits are described as being very sweet. The deep purple juice that the fruit holds is especially tasty, which is why it’s added to a variety of beverages and cocktails in certain countries.
According to the USDA, 100 grams/3.5 ounces of prickly pear cactus contains about:
- 40 calories
- 10 grams carbohydrates
- 3.5 grams fiber
- less than 1 gram of fat or protein
- 85 milligrams magnesium (24 percent DV)
- 14 milligrams vitamin C (17 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin/vitamin B2(8 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (8 percent DV)
- 56 milligram calcium (6 percent DV)
- 220 milligrams potassium (5 percent DV)
1. Has Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Effects
Research studies have found prickly pear fruit and pods are rich in flavonoids, carotenoid and polyphenol antioxidants, as well as vitamin C. In certain studies, compounds that have been identified in this plant include: gallic acid, vanillic acid, catechins, betalain, betanin and indicaxanthin.
There’s evidence that these phytochemicals can support the immune system, help to protect skin health, and ward off free radical damage and inflammation that contribute to aging and disease. There’s some evidence that prickly pear cactus also has anti-clastogenic abilities, meaning it protects DNA from damage.
Additionally, juice from the cactus, which has a high antioxidant content, has been found to have the capacity to capture free radicals and reduce oxidative stress related to exercise.
2. Provides Essential Minerals and Fatty Acids
Records indicate that during the “tuna harvest” in Latin America and the Southwest U.S., prickly pear was likely the most important food available in the region for many years (along with pecans and buffalo).
The pods and fruit of this cactus provide important minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium. These essential minerals serve as electrolytes and are needed for many functions, including bone, heart, nerve and muscle health.
Studies looking at the fatty acid profile of prickly pear seed oil show that it’s also rich in essential unsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic acid (61.01%), followed by oleic acid (25.52%) and palmitic acid (12.23%). These have benefits including protecting the heart and controlling inflammation.
3. Good Source of Fiber That Supports Metabolic Health
Cactus fruit and is a good source of carbohydrates and dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber. Eating it may help to improve gut health and reduce digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea.
Because they are a source of fiber (or pectin) and low in sugar, the immature pads, or nopalitos, have also been used to help control or prevent type 2 diabetes. Some research suggests that the pads which contain soluble fibers and a viscous mucilage may have a natural hypoglycemic effects, meaning they can lower high blood sugar levels.
One way in which this plant can decrease blood sugar levels and lower high cholesterol is by decreasing absorption of these compounds in the stomach and intestine. Some studies demonstrate that when adults with high cholesterol follow a healthy diet and consume prickly pear supplements it can reduce total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Prickly pear pads also contain high levels of amylose, a starch that breaks down into simple sugars slowly, providing energy but helping to prevent a spike in blood sugar.
4. May Contain Antibacterial and Antiviral Properties
According to folklore medicine, what is the benefit of prickly pear for warding off viruses and infections? While research on the topic is limited, this plant has long been utilized for its antiviral and antibacterial effects, such as protecting against urinary tract infections, skin infections, and even tuberculosis and hepatitis.
There’s some evidence that mucilage from the mature pads can kill bacteria that contribute to infections. Mature pads have also been used as natural antiseptics for skin wounds when they are pressed against the skin.
5. Used to Treat Enlarged Prostate
While more research on this topic is needed, some studies have found that powdered prickly pear supplements may reduce symptoms of enlarged prostate, such as urges to urinate frequently even with the bladder in empty.
Prickly pear cactuses grow in many warm parts of the world, including in the Southwest U.S., Australia, southern Africa, Mexico and other Latin American countries, and throughout the Mediterranean. While this cactus is most widely grown for its edible fruit and paddles (or pads/nopales), just about every part of the plant can be used in some way.
Historically, there have been many uses for prickly pear fruits, juices, teas, pads and seeds in folklore and traditional medicines. Some examples of how this plant was used include:
- Fighting viruses and infections
- Helping to treat wounds and burns
- Treating diarrhea
- Warding off diabetes, cardiovascular disease, prostate disease and other inflammatory diseases
- Relieving gastric ulcers
- Reducing pain
- Stopping bleeding
Not only is the fruit from this cactus eaten, but prickly pear seed oil and extracts are also available. These are utilized as supplements and made from the dark, hard seeds of the cactus fruit. Each prickly pear fruit contains about 50 seeds.
Prickly pear extract and oils are used in skincare and for hair care — added to products like serums, shampoos, conditioners and styling products — because the oil has hydrating and anti-aging effects, similar to olive oil. It may help to slow down winkle formation and other signs of aging, treat wounds and burns, freshen the appearance of dull skin, and strengthen hair and nails.
Additionally, some large species of prickly pear flowers are grown for ornamental/decorative purposes. These species include the Engelmann prickly pear (O. engelmannii) and the beavertail cactus (O. basilaris). These can be found throughout the southwestern U.S., such as in Texas and Arizona.
Prickly pear plants tend to grow quickly with adequate moisture and spread easily, sometimes growing so much that they are considered to be invasive.
How to Eat
Look for prickly pear in speciality stores, in the international section of major grocery stores, or in health food stores.
How do you know if this cactus fruit is ripe and ready to eat? You’re most likely to find ripe prickly pear fruit in the fall and spring in the Western Hemisphere. Because the spikes on the fruit can puncture the tongue and throat, it’s recommended to purchase spineless, cultivated varieties at the grocery store.
Look for fruits that appear brightly colored, smooth, firm, and are about the size of one or two golf balls. If the fruit feels too firm to the touch, leave it out at room temperature for one or two days to ripen. Then store it in the refrigerated for several days if you won’t be eating it right away.
In order to remove the skin and reveal the fruit’s flesh (the edible part), here’s how to prepare prickly pear:
- Before eating the fruit, make sure to remove all of the spikes.
- Rinse the fruits and scrub them or flake them with a brush or knife.
- Cut the ends off of the fruit then slice down the middle, then peel back the skin.
- Peel away the skin from the fruit inside of it. Discard the skin.
The nopales of the cactus are also edible; it’s recommended that you boil, bake, roast or grill them first to improve their texture and taste. Prickly pear pads look like green fleshy stems. In grocery stores or markets the immature pads may be referred to as nopalitos, while the mature pads are called nopales.
What types of prickly pear recipes can you try at home? Here are some ideas:
- Try the fruits or pods in Mexican cuisine, such as in huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), or tacos de nopales.
- Add some to fresh fruit/vegetable juices or smoothies. Prickly pear juice is sometimes called “jugo de tuna.” You can drink it on its own, or use some to make cocktails such as margaritas. A basic recipe for making jugo de tuna is: combining fruit from 5–6 prickly pears with 4 cups of cold water, juice from 2 limes, and 2 tablespoons of raw honey.
- Combine with other fruits in fresh fruit salad.
- Boil the fruit down to make a sweet syrup that can be used in desserts, candies or ice cream.
- Make homemade prickly pear jelly/jam, perhaps with chia seeds or in combination with berries.
- Add the cooked pads to salads and stews.
- Steep the fruit in hot water to make tea.
Risks and Side Effects
Be careful when eating prickly pear, since small spikes may remain on the fruits and pods which can irritate the inside of the mouth.
Some people have reported experiencing digestive upset after eating and drinking prickly pear fruit and juice. Potential side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating and headaches. If you develop any of these symptoms when adding prickly pear to your diet, stop consuming it for a period of time, perhaps trying it again several weeks later.
Adults with diabetes should use caution when consuming this plant, as it has the ability to alter blood sugar levels. Mature prickly pear pads also contain calcium oxalate crystals that are insoluble. These may worsen symptoms in people with a history of kidney or health problems, so use caution if this applies to you.
Are prickly pear seeds poisonous? No, however they are rarely eaten due to their hard shell. Instead, they are used to make oil that has a high level of healthy fatty acids.
- Prickly pear, which has the scientific name opuntia, is a member of the cactus (Cactaceae) plant family. It produces yellow flowers and bright pink/red, spiky fruits.
- The fruit’s taste is sweet, especially the purple juice that it contains. The pads of the cactus are also edible and a good source of soluble fiber. The seeds can also be used to make extract, oil and supplements.
- Prickly pear benefits include: providing essential minerals, carotenoids and antioxidants; fighting inflammation and free radical damage; treating skin burns and wounds; soothing the digestive system; helping to fight diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk factors; providing antibacterial and antiviral effects.
- Here’s how to eat prickly pear: Remove the spikes from the fruit, cut the ends off and slice down the middle, then peel back the skin. The fruit can be eaten raw, while the pads should be cooked first (baked, boiled, grilled or roasted).
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