Health Benefits of Cactus

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on February 17, 2023
4 min read

Cactus fruit may look intimidating, but once you get past its spiny outsides, it yields a mild and nutrient-rich flesh. This fruit is delicious eaten raw, added to recipes, or turned into a refreshing beverage.

Cactus fruit comes from the Opuntia cactus genus that's native to Central America and the drier, desert parts of North America. There are about 90 species of Opuntia in the United States alone, and all produce cactus fruits.

The fruit, both the flesh and the skin, ranges in color according to the variety. Even within the most common species, Opuntia ficus-indica, you might see fruit that's white, green, purple, yellow, red, or orange.

Opuntia ficus-indica is a domesticated type of cactus used as a crop plant, but wild species of Opuntia act as food sources too. The fruit of the cactus is also known as prickly pear, cactus pear, prickly pear fruit, nopal fruit, tuna, sabra, Barbary pear, and Indian fig.

Cactus pads and cactus fruit have long been tied to indigenous cultures all across Mexico, with people using them as food as far back as 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. Today, you'll find Opuntia grown as a crop throughout Mexico, the Mediterranean, northern Africa, Chile, South Africa, the Middle East, California, and other parts of the Southwestern United States.

Cactus plants have a number of nutrients that may be good for different aspects of your health:


Both the cactus pad and the cactus fruit are high in fiber, which can lower cholesterol levels in the blood. 

Blood sugar

High blood sugar in the body can be a symptom of several illnesses, such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease. Some research shows that people who ate cactus pads on a regular basis had lower blood sugar than those that didn’t. More research is needed to determine the reasons for this. 

Immune system

Cactus fruits 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 help your body fight off viruses. 


The betalain and potassium content in cactus are good for digestion. Potassium helps your body absorb nutrients, while betalains are anti-inflammatory and help to protect your digestive tract.

Cactus fruits and pads offer a dose of vitamins and nutrients that have anti-inflammatory properties. 

These include: 

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Omega-3s

Nutrients per serving

A 1-cup serving of raw, unsalted cactus contains: 

  • Calories: 24
  • Protein: 1.98 grams
  • Fat: 0.135 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 5 grams
  • Fiber: 3.3 grams
  • Sugar: 1.72 grams

Portion sizes

Raw cactus is very low in saturated fat, calories, and cholesterol. 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. 

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 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.