The 5 Health Benefits of Cactus, According to an Expert
There’s no doubt that when you think of cactus, deserts and tumbleweed come to mind, not "health food." But the prickly pear – technically known as Nopal cactus –has been used as a natural medicine for thousands of years in Mexico and the United States and now cactus is enjoying a resurgence in the wellness world, making its way into nutritious recipes and beauty products. The reason: This superfruit is rich in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins, making it a healthy addition to your diet.
What is Nopal cactus and where does it come from?
Nopal cactus grows in warm, dry, climates where plants are exposed to over 3,600 hours of bright sunshine per year and need to protect themselves from oxidization, so they create natural anti-oxidants to survive, and when we eat those compounds, the benefits transfer to us. In Mexico alone, the crop takes over seven million acres of land. The plant produces flattened stems called pads that grow from 4 to 16 inches and are the edible parts of the cactus, along with the leaves, flowers, and cactus fruit produced once a year. Nopal cactus is often eaten boiled, grilled, or made into jams and jellies.
The 5 Health Benefits of Nopal Cactus
Dahlia Martin, RDN is co-founder of Married to Health, an integrative nutrition practice focusing on prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, as well as disease reversal, through plant-based nutrition. She is an expert on the nutritional benefits of cactus.
1. Cactus is rich in antioxidants
Antioxidants are powerful molecules that help neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies. They are mostly found in plants, including cacti. “Nopal cactus is particularly rich in two types of antioxidants: flavonoids, which are associated with reducing the risk of chronic diseases, and betalains, which contain anti-inflammatory properties,” Marin says. The color of the cactus impacts how many flavonoids you get. The juice from red-purple prickly pear has the highest antioxidant content, according to a recent study that compared the juices from various colors of cactus.
2. Cactus is high in fiber
Fiber is the part of carbohydrate that is harder to digest, so eating high-fiber foods helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which regulates our blood sugar levels. Cactus contains twice as much fiber as sugar, so for every 1.9 grams of fiber, it has 0.9 grams of sugar, a healthy ratio. According to the Mayo Clinic, women should aim for at least 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day and men should aim for 30 to 38 a day. “Due to their naturally low sugar and high fiber content, cactus not only regulates blood sugar but is also good for your gut,” Marin says. "The fiber draws water into the intestines and binds to cholesterol in the gut before it can be circulated into blood vessels and arteries," she explains. By incorporating cactus into your diet, you can increase your fiber intake.
3. Cactus is low-glycemic
Our body breaks down various carbohydrates differently: Simple carbohydrates, such as table sugar or corn syrup, break down quickly which can lead to a spike in blood sugar, which the Cleveland Clinic explains can lead to a surge in insulin production, that signals cells to store unused energy as fat. These foods are categorized as “high-glycemic.” Complex carbohydrates are also called “low-glycemic” foods since they don't elicit the same spike in blood sugar, and are broken down slower in our body. A low glycemic diet can improve your overall health and prevent lifestyle diseases like prediabetes, the Mayo Clinic reports. Cactus is a low-glycemic food that contains both soluble and insoluble fiber and is low in carbohydrates, so it is a good addition to any healthy diet.
4. Cactus is rich in linolenic acid
Linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid, a type of omega-3s that are similar to the ones found in fish oil. Linolenic acid has been shown to reduce inflammation and may help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis. They may also be important for brain health and cell development, according to Mount Sinai Health. Linolenic acid is found in many plants and is known to support a healthy heart, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. “Nopal cactus is rich in linolenic acid, which has cholesterol-lowering effects," explains Marin. "The prickly pear fruits, the fruit pulp, and fruit seed are the parts of the cactus that are particularly highest in linolenic acid.”
5. Cactus is rich in vitamin C
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that is known to strengthen your immune system and is vital to many bodily functions, including tissue growth and wound healing. It’s an essential vitamin, meaning our bodies cannot make it and we need to get it through diet. Many plants and fruits are full of vitamin C, including cactus. One serving of nopal cactus contains 20.9 milligrams of vitamin C. The prickly pear fruit contains 180 to 300 grams of vitamin C, which is higher than many other fruits, according to a study. The recommended daily amount for vitamin C is 65 to 90 milligrams a day, and the upper limit is 2,000 mg a day, so cactus will provide what you need and more.
How to cook with cactus
It is safe to eat prickly pear raw but remove the skin first. and use a strainer or juicer to get rid of the hard seeds. Unripe prickly pears are less sweet, but the red and purple fruit has a sweeter taste. If you grow or pick your own nopal, you'll need to remove the thorns and the thick green skin. You will also need to remove the slime from the surface before cooking them to be safe from any spray that might have been used in growing the cactus.
Nopal cactus is used in many traditional Mexican dishes. Not only is it healthy, but it’s super flavorful and makes a satisfying addition to any meal. Here are four ways to cook it:
- Use it as a meat substitute for tacos, burritos, wraps, soups, and salads.
- Marinate them in a flavorful brine to make pickles.
- Season and fry them for a delicious twist on fries.
- Boil and cook the cactus with sugar to make a sweet jam.