Medically reviewed by Jonathan Purtell, RDN
Nopal (prickly pear cactus) is a plant of the Opuntia ficus indica species and a member of the Cactaceae family. You can find it growing in sandy soil in regions such as the U.S. Southwest, Latin America, and the Mediterranean.
The pads, also known as nopales or cactus paddles, are described as having a texture like okra and a taste like green beans, with a slight tart flavor. Nopales are considered a vegetable. People also eat the fruit, prickly pear cactus fruit, referred to as tuna in Spanish.
The raw fruit is said to have a range of flavors, including watermelon, strawberry, fig, or honeydew. It can be used in fruit salsas, salads, and desserts. Consumers may also purchase nopal as a supplement; it is available in tablet and powder form.
Learn more about why nopal is nutritious, its health benefits, and how to consume it.
Nopal Benefits: What Makes Prickly Pear Cactus Nutritious?
Nopal is highly nutritious. It is low in calories, with no fat, sodium, or cholesterol. It is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and betalains. Betalains are pigments that have anti-inflammatory properties.
Due to its variety of fibers, nopal has a low glycemic index of about 32, making it a great addition to a diabetes-friendly eating plan. The glycemic index is a measure of how much a food raises blood sugar levels after consumption.
Compounds in Nopal
Nopal contains a wide variety of beneficial carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Nopal has both soluble and insoluble fiber, which is a benefit for blood sugar. In addition, nopal contains vitamin A, carotenoids, vitamin C, calcium, and plant-based compounds like phenols and betalains.
Blood Sugar Regulation
Studies have evaluated the use of supplemental nopal as well as the regular consumption for blood sugar control.
A very small study on blood sugar evaluated adding nopal to a high-carbohydrate breakfast or a breakfast high in soy protein in Mexican people with type 2 diabetes. The study found that consuming nopales before a meal, about 300 grams (g) or 1.75 to 2 cups, can reduce after-meal (postprandial) blood sugars.
An older study had similar results. People were randomly assigned to consume 85 g nopal with three different breakfast options: chilaquiles (a casserole made with corn tortilla, vegetable oil, and pinto beans), burritos (made with eggs, vegetable oil, and pinto beans), or quesadillas (made with flour tortillas, low-fat Monterey Jack cheese, avocado, and pinto beans).
All groups assigned to eating nopales had reductions in blood sugar. There was a 30% reduction in the chilaquiles group, a 20% decrease in the burrito group and a 48% reduction in the group who consumed quesadillas.
Researchers suspect discrepancies in the reduction rates are based on the meal composition. The reduction was greater with a breakfast higher in calories and protein, whereas it was lower with the breakfasts with a lower fat content.
While this is promising, the studies were very small, and the population was not diverse. so more research is needed.
High in Fiber
The combination of soluble and insoluble fiber benefits the gut in a variety of ways. Soluble fiber can act as a prebiotic—feeding beneficial bacteria in the gut—and assists in removing low-density lipoproteing (LDL "bad") cholesterol from the body. Insoluble fiber increases transit time—how quickly food moves through your digestive system—and promotes bowel regularity.
In a small, short-term randomized clinical control trial, researchers found an improvement in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms in people supplemented with 20 and 30 g of nopal fiber.
For people not used to consuming fibrous foods, increasing intake slowly and with adequate amounts of water can prevent gas and bloating. For some, consuming nopales may cause mild diarrhea.
Source of Plant Based Calcium
A 1-cup serving of nopal provides 244 milligrams (mg) or 24% of your daily calcium needs. Calcium is a mineral with many roles, including optimizing bone and teeth health. It is also involved in blood vessel contraction and dilation, muscle function, blood-clotting, nerve transmission, and hormonal secretion.
People who choose to follow diets that exclude dairy products (which are rich in calcium) benefit from sources of plant-based calcium. Like cruciferous vegetables (especially kale, collards, and arugula), nopales are rich in calcium and can help fill the need for this nutrient gap.
Other Potential Benefits
Studies done in animals (in vivo) and test tubes (in vitro) suggest that both fresh nopal and nopal extracts may assist in reducing triglycerides and cholesterol in metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease (in which unhealthy amounts of fat accumulate in the liver).
Other benefits with preliminary or limited evidence include:
Reducing inflammation and pain
Reducing body mass index (BMI), systolic, and diastolic blood pressure
Produce positive changes in the gut microbiota (the community of microbes in the gut) and weight loss
Fresh vs. Nopal Supplements
Fresh nopal is a common ingredient in Mexican culture. It is available fresh, frozen, and juiced. To eat the nopales, remove the spines (spikes, thorns, or barbs) and use them raw in salads or cooked in soups or tacos.
When nopales are diced, they are referred to as nopalitos, which are said to resemble the texture of okra. You can dice them, cook them, and add them to side dishes, egg dishes, or vegetarian tacos. They add a meaty texture.
The fruit of the prickly pear cactus may be consumed raw or used to make syrup, jam, and jellied candy and wine.
Nopal supplements are sold in dosages ranging from 450 mg to 3,000 mg, but there is not enough evidence to determine what is a safe amount. Because there is no agreed-upon safe dose and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ask a healthcare provider before supplementing with nopal.
Nopal Serving Size and Nutrition Facts
One cup of cooked nopales without added salt (about five pads) contains:
Fat: 0 g
Sodium: 30 mg
Carbohydrates: 5 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sugars: 1.7 g
Protein: 2 g
Vitamin A: 600 international units (IU)
Vitamin C: 8 mg
Vitamin K: 8 micrograms (mcg)
Potassium: 291 mg
Choline: 11 mg
Calcium: 244 mg
Magnesium: 70 mg
It is generally recommended that most people consume 2.5 to 4 cups of vegetables per day.
Who Shouldn’t Eat Nopal?
Most people can eat whole nopal without a problem unless they are allergic to it.
Supplementing with nopal is different because supplements provide a concentrated source. If you take medication to manage diabetes, consuming nopal regularly may contribute to an increased risk of developing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Ask a registered dietitian or your primary healthcare provider if nopal is right for you.
Dermatitis has also been reported from contact with the cactus spines. There have been rare reports of bowel obstruction in people who consume large amounts of the seeds, which are found in the fruit.
Nopal, also known as prickly pear cactus, is a nutrient-dense and versatile food that can be added to eating plans for increased intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant-based compounds. Some research suggests that its nutritional components may assist in lowering blood glucose, inflammation, and risk factors associated with heart and metabolic diseases.
However, it is unclear as to what dose is safe and effective for supplementation. If you want to try nopal supplements, discuss taking them with a healthcare provider.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.