The nopal cactus is one of the nutritional world’s great secrets… Though a staple in Mexican, Syrian and Sicilian cuisine, within the US, it seems knowledge of the cactus as a food source is limited to the Southwest region where it is more commonly found.
The nopal cactus is one of the few plants of the world that actually produces both an edible fruit and vegetable.
The Nopal Cactus Fruit
Nopal cactus fruit ripen in late September. Depending on the variety, when mature, they may appear bright red on the outside with a fiery orange to red interior or yellow on the outside with a green interior.
Sometimes called a “cactus pear”, “prickly pear”, “tuna” or “Indian fig” is said to taste like a cross between a melon (like a watermelon) and a kiwi – meaning it’s sweet, with a slight “bite” to it. Traditionally it’s been used to make a variety of different goods- syrups, jellies, pies, and even beverages such as wine; though the most popular way to eat it is as a chilled fruit in whole form.
Picking the fruit can prove to be quite a challenge if you don’t have the right equipment. The nopal cactus fruit has an abundance of needle-like bristles (called glochids) that cover the hard, outer casing.
Harvesting the fruit
Harvesting the fruit is something that requires a bit of delicacy. You should wear a pair of thick gloves and bring along a pair of tongs, a sharp knife and a sack. Once you’ve selected your pear for picking, grasp it with the tongs, cut it off the plant at the joint and drop it into your sack. After gathering a sufficient supply, the bristles need to be removed. Pick the fruit up with your tongs and hold it under running water while using a knife or hard bristled brush to scrape away the bristles.
Preparing the fruit for eating
Once you have cleaned your fruit, it’s time to cut it open. The best way to do so is to cut off the ends, then make a small slice lengthwise down the skin and peel the outer skin off. (Much like you would an onion)
The Nopal Cactus Pads (Vegetable)
Unlike nopal cactus fruit, nopal cactus pads can be harvested year-round. These cactus “leaves” tend to have a mild lemon-like flavor and are great grilled, diced fresh and added to salads, etc. But their usefulness is history has shown to go far beyond its classification as a food.
The nopal cactus pad has, within it, a “liquid” which was used in folk medicine as an adhesive agent for wounds. In fact, it’s such a great adhesive, that the liquid has also been used as a binding agent in earthen plaster used in housebuilding since those days.
Nopal Cactus Nutrients
Nopal cactus fruits and leaves are loaded with nutrients and have many health benefits:
- Fiber helps stabalize blood sugar – nopal cactus helps reduce the glycemic index value of any food it’s paired with in a meal. It does so because of the high amount of “slow digesting” plant fiber found within. Essentially, addition of nopal cactus to your meal slows the digestion process within the body reducing the risk of a sudden sugar “spike”.
- Fiber and sterols of nopal hep lower cholesterol – High cholesterol is the result of an increased absorption of blood fats in the body. Nopal, when eaten, can prevent this build up by adhering to salt particles in the intestines and blocking exorbitant levels of fat in the body.
- Antioxidants in Nopal prevent blood vessel plaque build up – Nopal contains sterols, polyphenols and glycoproteins which all act as antioxidants to prevent plaque build up and inflammation within the walls of the blood vessels. Of course, this means a lower risk of heart related illnesses, such as heart disease.
- Fiber promotes colon health – Nopal contains both soluble and insoluble fiber. As mentioned previously, the soluble fiber is “slow digesting” which helps stabilize blood sugar, but it also helps absorb toxins, including carcinogens, which might have otherwise built up in the colon. Additionally, the insoluble fiber acts as “roughage” which ensures regularity.
- Mucilage balances pH of the stomach – Mucilage is a thick “gluey” substance found in plants. It’s this thick liquid that allows it to be an effective binding agent. When consumed, the mucilage binds to the lining of the stomach reducing stomach inflammation, preventing acid problems and soothing existing stomach conditions (such as ulcers).
- Antioxidant flavonoids reduce liver workload – Your liver is the part of the body responsible for cleansing. It can, however, become overwhelmed due to the build up of toxins and free radicals. Antioxidant flavonoids, like Betalains, help neutralize the free radicals allowing the liver to focus its full attention on regulating the immune system
- Promotes hydration – Nopal promotes hydration in the body for a combination of different reasons. The mucilage coats and protects cells, the antioxidants flush toxins and reduce free radical damage and the fiber helps you feel more full so you are less likely to eat more (possibly dehydrating) foods. All 3 of those actions would have otherwise caused total body dehydration.