Nopal cactus fruit has been used for food and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Recent research on Nopal cactus fruit has shown a variety of health benefits.
The pads of the Nopal cactus can be cooked in a variety of ways or eaten fresh, and provide many nutrients, including:
The Nopal cactus, or prickly pear, has been used since ancient times for food and medicinal purposes. Cultivated around the world, Nopal cactus is generally believed to be indigenous to North America, particularly Mexico. It is an important food source in Mexico and is such an integral part of their culture that it appears on the Mexican flag.
Nopal cactus as food
The Nopal cactus consists of fleshy oval pads, dark-colored fruit and in certain seasons, colorful flowers. The pads are called “nopalitas” and once stripped of their spines can be added to a variety of food dishes. They can be used fresh in salads, grilled, pickled, sautéed and even be used as filling in tacos and enchiladas. Cactus pads provide beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, vitamin C and calcium.
The dark-colored Nopal cactus fruit, “tuna,” averages 2 to 4 inches in length and is shaped like an avocado. It has thick and coarse skin but its sweet and juicy flesh can be eaten fresh or cooked. Both the pads and Nopal cactus fruit are good sources of dietary fiber.
Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy the bounty of the Nopal cactus; desert animals such as packrats, javelina and desert tortoises feast on the pads and fruit. Packrats and various birds may sometimes nest among the pads.
Nopal cactus fruit as health aid
Traditionally, Nopal cactus fruit was used by indigenous peoples as medicine for a variety of health conditions. More recently, scientific research has show that when eaten, the Nopal cactus fruit can help protect the immune and nervous systems and protect against oxidative stress.
Research unveiled that Nopal cactus fruit has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, thanks to a class of rare and potent nutrients called bioflavonoids. Bioflavonoids are in the quercetin family, which have been shown to protect against inflammation related to free radicals (unstable molecules in the body). Nopal cactus fruit is a rich source of quercetin.
Finding the best Nopal cactus fruit
One variety of Nopal cactus found in the Sonora Desert of North America, Opuntia ficus indica, has been used for food and medicine by the Pima Indians for thousands of years. They drink the juice of the Nopal cactus fruit to promote health and wellness and use the pads for food. Nopalea, a delicious, anti-inflammatory wellness drink, is sourced from this variety of Nopal cactus fruit.
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