Cactus Fruit: Health Benefits, Nutrition, and Uses

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 species 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 even 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, and California, as well as other parts of the southwestern United States.

Health Benefits

The fruit of the Opuntia cactus contains health-boosting nutrients like amino acids, fatty acids, and antioxidants like betalains, polyphenols, and flavonoids.

Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health

Cactus fruit nutrients are variable, but all cactus fruits contain a variety of antioxidants known to protect cells. These antioxidants help to reduce triglycerides and bad cholesterol levels in your body. They're also able to reduce body fat percentages and help lower your risk for metabolic syndrome.

Digestive Support

Cactus fruit can help to improve your digestion, thanks to its betalain and potassium content. Potassium helps food be better absorbed, while betalains are anti-inflammatory and help to protect your digestive tract.

Nutrition

Cactus fruits are rich in a number of vitamins and antioxidants, with betalains being the most plentiful. These fruits are also good sources of:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Beta-carotene
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus

Continued

Nutrients per Serving

One prickly pear contains:

  • Calories: 42
  • Protein: 1 gram
  • Fat: 0.5 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 10 grams
  • Fiber: 4 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: 5 milligrams

Things to Watch Out For

To enjoy cactus fruit, you need to remove the skin that contains very sharp spines. These spines can hurt your mouth, throat, and stomach if eaten. The black seeds of the fruit can also lead to constipation if you eat too many in one sitting.

How to Prepare Cactus Fruit

You can find cactus fruit in some supermarkets or farmers markets. They’re more widespread and less expensive when purchased in a region where they’re locally grown.

To prepare, put on a pair of gloves and carefully slice off the top and bottom sections, which are usually rough. Then, slide the knife vertically through the skin, and peel the skin away from the fruit. Once you have the soft fruit, you can cut and eat it any way you like.

If you'd like to try out some cactus fruit recipes, these are a few you can make at home:

  • Chop cactus fruit into cubes and add to orange slices for a fresh fruit salad.
  • Make cactus fruit jelly or jam.
  • Make your own sorbet with cactus fruit, sugar, lemon juice, and water.
  • Bake a cactus fruit lemon bar.
  • Use cactus fruit in a smoothie.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 26, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Opuntia spp.: Characterization and Benefits in Chronic Diseases."

HortScience: "Human Health Discoveries with Opuntia sp. (Prickly Pear)."

University of Kansas, American Indian Health and Diet Project: "Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere."

University of California Davis, Small Farm Program: "Prickly Pear Cactus Production."

Cota-Sanchez, J. Hugo. Nutritional Composition of Fruit Cultivars, Academic Press, 2016. "Nutritional Composition of the Prickly Pear (Opuntia Ficus-Indica) Fruit."

Food Science and Nutrition: "The Effect of Opuntia Ficus-indica Juice Supplementation on Oxidative Stress, Cardiovascular Parameters, and Biochemical Markers Following Yo-yo Intermittent Recovery Test."

Antioxidants: "Digestive Stability and Bioaccessibility of Antioxidants in Prickly Pear Fruits from the Canary Islands: Health Foods and Ingredients."

Natural Products Chemistry & Research: "Cactus (Opuntia Ficus-Indica): A Review on its Antioxidants Properties and Potential Pharmacological Use in Chronic Diseases."

USDA FoodData Central: “Prickly pears, raw.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination

Get Diet and Fitness Tips In Your Inbox

Eat better and exercise smarter. Sign up for the Food & Fitness newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, I agree to the WebMD Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of WebMD subscriptions at any time.