Health Benefits of Cactus

The cactus plant is a staple in many Latin American cultures. This desert-dwelling plant grows in the arid regions throughout Latin America, Southern California, and Arizona. Two parts of the cactus are typically eaten: the cactus fruit (prickly pear) and the flat cactus pad (nopales). 

When preparing cactus, you can eat the fruits and the pads raw, cook them into dishes, or squeeze them into juice. You can harvest them yourself or buy them in a local market. 

Health Benefits

Cactuses are known for their nutrients as well as their medicinal value. Both cactus pads and cactus fruit can help fight infections and ease the symptoms of anything from hangovers to high cholesterol. 

Here are some of the health benefits of cactus: 

Manages Cholesterol

Both the cactus pad and the cactus fruit are high in fiber, which can lower cholesterol levels in the blood. A study found that eating cactus can reduce body fat, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Incorporating cactus fruits into your diet can help reduce the risk of diseases like stroke, coronary heart disease, and peripheral vascular diseases

Eases Hangovers

Cactuses contain vitamins C, E, A, iron, calcium, and more. This wide range of nutrients and more can help reduce inflammation in the body. Research found that taking cactus extract after drinking five to seven alcoholic drinks resulted in fewer hangover symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or dry mouth). The cactus extract also reduced inflammation in the body, which is often linked to alcohol intake. 

Controls Blood Sugar

High blood sugar in the body can be a symptom of several illnesses, such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease. A study conducted in Mexico measured the difference between those who included cactus pads in their diet and those who didn’t, finding that those who regularly ate doses of cactus showed a significant decrease in their blood sugar levels. The study suggests that eating cactus may be a low-cost way to lower blood sugar for those with diabetes. 

Boosts the Immune System

Cactus fruits in particular are an excellent source of vitamin C, which is one of the best immune boosters. Regular doses of vitamin C increase the production of white blood cells, which can make you less likely to catch an illness — and help your body fight off viruses if you’re infected. 

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Nutrition

Cactus fruits and pads offer a dose of vitamins and nutrients that have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce the risk of serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. 

It’s also an excellent source of: 

Nutrients per Serving

A 1 cup serving of raw, unsalted cactus contains: 

  • Calories: 13.8
  • Protein: 1.14 grams
  • Fat: 0.08 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 2.86 grams
  • Fiber: 1.89 grams
  • Sugar: 1 gram

Portion Sizes

Raw cactus is very low in saturated fat, calories, and cholesterol. Keep in mind that the nutrition value may change if you roast cactus pads with oil, butter, or salt. In many forms of jams, candy, and juices, cactus juice may be mixed with other juices, such as pineapple, orange, or grapefruit. This can increase the amount of sugar you’re taking in. 

How to Prepare Cactus

If you’re harvesting your own cactus fruits or pads, it’s important that you use the right gear. Always wear long sleeves and thick gloves when harvesting cactus. Once you’re home, use a knife to scrape off the spines and peel off the skin.

Depending on your location, you may be able to find fresh cactus in your local grocery store or market with the spines already removed. You may also find it processed, packaged, or canned. 

Preparing Cactus Pads (Nopales) 

Once you remove the spines and peel the skin off the pads, you can cut nopales into strips or squares and cook them. Boiling cactus pads can remove the slimy texture, while roasting brings out the unique tart flavor. 

Once cooked, you can add them into a variety of dishes: 

  • Scrambled eggs
  • Quesadillas
  • Tacos
  • Chili
  • Tamales
  • Tomato soup

You can also use nopales to make dishes from scratch: 

  • Cactus salad
  • Fried nopales with dipping sauce
  • Cactus casserole
  • Stuffed nopales

Preparing Cactus Fruits (Prickly Pear) 

Cactus fruits can be eaten raw without any preparation. If you’re making cactus juice or jam, you can pulp the fruit and strain it to get rid of the seeds. 

Here are some of the ways you can use cactus fruits: 

  • Make jam or jelly
  • Squeeze cactus juice
  • Add to fruit salads 
  • Make pancake syrup
  • Blend into a smoothie
  • Turn into sorbet
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 19, 2020

Sources

SOURCES: 

Arch Intern Med: "Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on symptoms of the alcohol hangover"

American Diabetes Association: "Lowering Effect on Postprandial Glycemic Response of Nopales Added to Mexican Breakfasts"

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Supplementation with cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) fruit decreases oxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C"

National Library of Medicine:  "The effect of cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials"

New Mexico State University: "Cactus Concoctions: How to Prepare and Use Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit and Pads"

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