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Nopal: A Mexican delicacy enters our diets

Anyone who has spent time in Mexico, or in a region infused with Mexican flavours, will have met nopal, a name often given to the Opuntia cacti itself, as well as to its edible pads.

Nopal cacti is also mother to the prickly pear fruit. You can see this generously figured cacti, topped with brilliant red rounds, planted in cans on doorsteps and on balconies. It graces the sides of the endless highways of Mexico and is found in gardens. The Opuntia cacti grows wild in volcanic regions and chaparrals.

Nopal cactus is enjoyed throughout Latin America and was eaten by the Aztec and Maya people. The tough skin of the young cacti pads is removed. The moist, meaty flesh is eaten as a vegetable. Rinsed thoroughly and cut into pieces, it is sold from door to door in Mexico by old women carrying it in plastic tubs on their heads. You can find it in the wonderful markets in nearly every Mexican town. Pickled and canned, nopal is placed on supermarket shelves, and this ingredient can also be enjoyed as a juice or dried. In Mexico, the nopal industry is worth USD$150 million and gives jobs to 10,000 people.

How to cook nopal, you ask?

Well, the cactus features in traditional salads and spicy vegetarian tacos. In addition, it goes beautifully with shrimp and potatoes in various regional dishes. Huevos con nopal (nopal and eggs) is a popular Mexican breakfast, eaten with homemade salsas. Similarly to aloe vera, nopal feels soothing on the bare skin and is concurrently used as a home remedy for insect bites and small cuts. This cacti was also used for the production of dye in pre-Hispanic times. In the contemporary day, nopal cactus is often used in traditional candy and to help firm up plaster.

A new interest in nopal

Mexican cuisine is undergoing something of a worldwide renaissance. It is changing in people’s minds from heavy, lard-filled dishes into a sophisticated way of cooking. A wider variety of Mexican spices, herbs, and other ingredients have entered the market in Europe and North America. Yet, nopal is still exotic to many.

To add to the interest in the ingredient, the curanderos, or Latin American folk healers, have long sung its medicinal benefits. Current research is backing this up with scientific proof.  This becomes more important when you consider that 80% of the world rely on herbal remedies for health.(1) Nopal is a folk remedy for colds, boils, coughs, cystitis, and gut ailments. Its healing characteristics are becoming better known in the rest of the world. Here is why this cacti is a healthy addition to your diet.

Nopal for diabetes

A traditional use of this cacti in Mexico has been in the treatment of diabetes. A study conducted in Mexico found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate nopal for breakfast exhibited lower blood sugar and insulin levels.(2) This may be partially due to its high fibre content.

However, you should talk to a doctor when taking nopal at the same time as Western oral anti-diabetic medications.(3) Something else to look out for is possible contamination with salmonella from soil or water. As a result, as with all fruits and vegetables, you should properly clean this ingredient before using it in food preparation.

Nopal for cholesterol

Fibre may also be the reason why studies have found that nopal lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol in humans and animals.(4) Either way, eating it as part of a healthy diet and exercise regimen is good for heart health.

Ease joint pain with nopal

Calcium is essential for bone health. However, this can become more difficult as plant-based eating becomes a popular choice. We at Erbology firmly believe in sourcing all the vitamins and minerals you need through healthy eating rather than via supplements. Studies have shown that calcium intake from nopal benefitted bone density and eased joint pain resulting from osteoarthritis in women.(5)

Nopal: A Mexican delicacy enters our diets
Nopal: A Mexican delicacy enters our diets
Nopal: A Mexican delicacy enters our diets
Nopal: A Mexican delicacy enters our diets

"Mexican cuisine is undergoing something of a worldwide renaissance. It is changing in people's minds from heavy, lard-filled dishes into a sophisticated way of cooking."

What else is nopal good for?

Nopal is extremely high in antioxidants, especially phenols and flavonoids which help fight oxidative stress. It also contains important enzymes and is wonderfully rich in polyphenols, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and amino acids, which are all restorative for the body. Researchers have looked into the potential of nopal cactus as an antiallergenic and anti-ulcer agent and its ability to boost long-term memory. The results are intriguing.(6)  Modern science supports the microbial and neuro-protective benefits of nopal.(7) Neuro-protective means that adding the cactus to your diet can help prevent against nerve damage and resulting loss of sensitivity.

Mucilage is a sort of fibre that is particularly helpful for gut health because it helps food pass through the gut as smoothly as possible. Think of it as lubricating your gut.  Mucilage relieves constipation, and nopal cactus is rich in mucilage.

What you put on your outside should be good for your insides as well. The porosity of your skin means that everything you put on it will seep into you. This is great news when it comes to nopal, which is anti-inflammatory and hydrating for the skin. Above all, the phytochemicals and antioxidants found in this cacti are healing for your entire body. Erbology Organic Nopal Energy Balls are a delicious way to enjoy the benefits of this ingredient while on the go.

Key nopal benefits

  • High in dietary fibre including mucilage
  • Hydrating for the skin
  • Anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial
  • Lowers blood sugar levels

Nopal recipes

Pumpkin pie is one of these nostalgic dishes that is difficult to let go of. However, this version is much more interesting for the taste buds than the classic. It is also better for the body. The warm, consoling flavours are still there.

Cans of ready-made pumpkin filling were synonymous with traditional pumpkin pies. The memory of browsing succulent orange squash in the store or, ideally, the market, will make this pie taste even more delicious to you.  It may sound sentimental, but running your finger over the firm, dry skin of the pumpkin and slowly feeling its uneven ridges will allow for a more intimate enjoyment of the finished pie. This is a truth that sensual cultures focused on food have always known and felt. In many places, supermarkets have forcibly removed this knowledge from the popular consciousness.

Where’s the nopal?

The no-bake crust, made from Erbology Organic Tigernut Granola with Nopal, has a wonderful texture and sits lightly on the stomach. Your body will thank you even further for the healthful boost of chia seeds, sprouted buckwheat, and tigernuts (which are not nuts, but roots!) contained in the granola. Golden raisins add bursts of sweetness to the crust, while vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and star anise spice the smooth pumpkin filling. We have thickened with rich coconut milk. The cardamom, apples, and ginger blended into the granola complement the filling and add a contemporary element. The time-honoured scheme of flavours is still there. A few tablespoons of chickpea flour acts as a thickening agent to tie the ingredients together. Easy-peasy!

You will only need a fourth of the pumpkin for the pie; as a result this recipe leaves you with the enticing decision of what to do with the rest of the squash. Might we suggest a lovely vegetable curry, perhaps? Or several loaves of a pumpkin bread, one to enjoy little by little in the brisk mornings and the rest to pop into the freezer for later in the season? A big pot of pumpkin soup to enjoy for lunch all week, the flavours coming further together as the week goes on, would probably be our pick.

We leave you with a final dilemma: What to do with the pumpkin seeds? If only all life decisions were nearly as delectable…

 

References

(1) Gesler WM. “Therapeutic landscapes: medical issues in light of the new cultural geography”, Social Science and Medicine. 1992. [PubMed].

(2) Lopez-Romero et al, “The Effect of Nopal (Opuntia Ficus Indica) on Postprandial Blood Glucose, Incretins, and Antioxidant Activity in Mexican Patients with Type Diabetes after Consumption of Two Different Composition Breakfasts”, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, November 2014, https://bit.ly/2VRRc1u.

(3) Rai et al, “Interaction of Herbs and Glibenclamide: A Review”, ISRN Pharmacology, July 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3403124/.

(4) Gutierrez, Miguel Angel, “Medicinal Use Of The Latin Food Staple Nopales: The Prickly Pear Cactus”, Nutrition Bytes, 1998, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2x53d917.

(5) Patel, Seema, “Opuntia cladodes (nopal): Emerging functional food and dietary supplement”, Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2014, https://bit.ly/2RMeI0n.

(6) Angulo-Bejarano et al, “Phytochemical Content, Nutraceutical Potential and Biotechnological Applications of an Ancient Mexican Plant: Nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica)”, Current Nutrition & Food Science, 2014, http://www.eurekaselect.com/124248.

(7) El-Mostafa et al, “Nopal cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as a source of bioactive compounds for nutrition, health and disease.” Molecules, September 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25232708.

Tags

  • Mucilage fibre
  • Nopal
  • Opuntia cacti

Nopal in our delicious foods

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