Erbology
Nopal cactus: health benefits, uses and recipes

Nopal cactus: health benefits, uses and recipes

Team ErbologyErbology

Anyone who has spent time in Mexico, or loves Mexican cuisine, will have come across nopales. These are the edible pads of the nopal cactus - and they come with a surprising array of health benefits. 

November 23, 2020 5:33 pm

Spiky, yet satisfying…

While it might seem a bit intimidating to those unfamiliar with it, many people around the world eat cactus as a vegetable.

The nopal cactus is very common in Mexican cuisine and is enjoyed throughout Latin America, dating back to the Aztec and Maya people. If you alarmed by the spines, fear not – the tough skin of the young cactus pads (nopales) are removed before cooking!

Traditionally, nopales are prepared by rinsing the pads thoroughly before chopping and adding to all sorts of foods, from tacos to salads. They can also be enjoyed as a main, and are especially nice grilled. Many people compare them to green pepper in terms of texture and appearance.

If you visit Mexico, you are likely to come across nopales planted in cans on doorsteps or balconies, or in the wonderful markets in nearly every town. Look out for their round pads, topped with pink, spiky fruit, along Mexican highways or in gardens. It fares especially well in volcanic regions and chaparrals.

Alternatively, the cactus may come to you! In Mexico, it’s common for older women to sell nopales door-to-door, transporting them using buckets carried on their heads. All told, the nopal cactus industry is worth around USD$150 million and provides jobs for 10,000 people.

In the US, you will probably be able to find canned or pickled nopales in the supermarket, or look for dried cactus or cactus juice.

How to enjoy nopales

Nopal cactus is a surprisingly versatile accompaniment to many different dishes. Whether you try it in the aforementioned tacos and salads, or decide to pair it with shrimp or potatoes, it adds a satisfying note to many recipes. Huevos con nopal (nopal and eggs) is a popular Mexican breakfast, eaten with homemade salsas.

Today, nopal cactus is also used to make traditional sweets.

If you would like to try nopales, you could also consider using them topically. Much like aloe vera, nopal juice feels soothing on the skin and is often used as a home remedy for insect bites and small cuts.

Two of its other myriad uses include firming up plaster, and the production of dyes in pre-Hispanic times.

A new interest in nopal

While Mexican cuisine is well-established on the world stage, nopales still seem quite exotic to many North Americans and Europeans. However, that looks likely to change, as consumers are more open to trying new and interesting foods from around the world.

What’s more, nopal cactus doesn’t just taste good. It’s good for you, too.

Latin American folk healers, known as curanderos, have long used nopal cactus to treat various ailments. As with so many natural remedies, modern science is finally beginning to catch up with traditional wisdom and provide real, empirical evidence to back up nopal’s medicinal claims. This is especially important when you consider than 80% of the world’s population relies on herbal remedies for health.(1)

Traditionally, nopal is used as a remedy for colds, boils, coughs, cystitis and gut ailments.

 

nopal cactus

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 healthy heart

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, getting enough of it can become more difficult as plant-based eating becomes a popular choice. Studies have shown that calcium intake from nopal cactus benefitted bone density and eased joint pain resulting from osteoarthritis in women.(5)

"Traditionally, nopal is used as a remedy for colds, boils, coughs, cystitis and gut ailments."

More nopal benefits

Nopal is high in antioxidants, especially phenols which help fight oxidative stress. It also contains important enzymes and is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and amino acids. These 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 seems to support the microbial and neuroprotective benefits of nopal, meaning that adding the cactus to your diet may help protect against nerve damage.(7)

As we might expect from a plant which is high in fibre and often treated as a vegetable, nopales are also good for your gut. They are high in mucilage, which is a type of fibre which helps food pass through the gut smoothly.

Finally, as mentioned above, nopal can be applied to the skin to sooth and hydrate, much like aloe vera. The phytochemicals and antioxidants found in this cacti are healing for your entire body.

We love this exotic plant so much that we’ve made it the hero ingredient in our delicious Organic Nopal Energy Balls. Perfect for when you’re on the go, they provide a boost of gut-friendly energy that can power you through workouts, meetings and afternoon slumps.

Key nopal benefits

  • High in dietary fibre including mucilage
  • Hydrating for the skin
  • Anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial
  • May lower blood sugar levels
  • May support heart health

Our favourite nopal recipe

Pumpkin pie is one of those nostalgic dishes that everyone loves. However, this version is a tasty (and healthy) departure from the original. Packed with warm, comforting flavours and with a filling made from fresh pumpkin, it’ll satisfy your holiday cravings. Meanwhile, the crust (made with our Tigernut Granola with Nopal Cactus) adds a new dimension of flavour and texture.

 

vegan pumpkin pie recipe

Nopales for breakfast

Our granola also makes a delicious breakfast and is a great way to incorporate this Mexican staple into your diet. Unlike other granolas, it has a light, crumbly texture and won’t feel heavy on your stomach.

What’s more, it’s full of prebiotic fibre thanks to earthy tigernut. With flavours as good as this, there’s no need for refined sugar; instead, we’ve added a touch of natural sweetness in the form of organic dates, apples and raisins.

Pour over your favourite milk or yoghurt in the mornings, or grab a handful as a filling and gut-friendly afternoon snack.

Nopales? No problem!

Related reading

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  • (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, 2014.

    (3) Rai et al, “Interaction of Herbs and Glibenclamide: A Review”, ISRN Pharmacology, 2012.

    (4) Gutierrez, Miguel Angel, “Medicinal Use Of The Latin Food Staple Nopales: The Prickly Pear Cactus”, Nutrition Bytes, 1998.

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

    (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.

    (7) El-Mostafa et al, “Nopal cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as a source of bioactive compounds for nutrition, health and disease.” Molecules, 2014.

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