Prickly Pear: A Good Pick for a Health Boost
Most people are wary of cactus because these plants are covered with spikes that can be painful if accidentally touched. But did you know that there’s a type of cactus plant, called prickly pear (Genus Opuntia1), that actually produces edible, refreshingly sweet fruits with vital health benefits? Keep reading to learn more about this unique fruit.
What Is Prickly Pear?
The prickly pear is an edible cactus plant that often grows in arid and semi-arid regions. A member of the Cactaceae or cactus family, it’s also known as nopal,2 Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig or cactus pear.3
The plant has both leaves and spines that are sharp, while the colorful flowers develop into prickly pear fruits, which are also known as figs or tunas. In fact, the whole plant, from the flowers and fruits to the stems and the leaves, are edible. Prickly pear is considered to be an important commercial crop in Mexico and other Latin American countries, as well as in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Prickly Pear’s Health Benefits
Prickly pear might be a good addition to your favorite fruit-based dishes, since it contains antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties.4
Plus, prickly pear is high-fiber, rich in antioxidants, carotenoids and linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid) and contains minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, as mentioned in The International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition.5,6
In modern holistic medicine, this fruit, in fruit extract or supplement form, is useful in helping treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, colitis, diarrhea and benign enlargement of the prostate gland.
Common Uses of Prickly Pear
Medicinal uses have been attributed to prickly pear, particularly its extract. In fact, in Mexican folk medicine, prickly pear cactus pulp and juice were useful in treating skin wounds, swollen stomachs, digestive problems and urinary tract infections (UTI).
Nowadays, prickly pear cactus supplements are available, usually as oils or capsules. Meanwhile, prickly pear extract can be used to remedy alcohol hangovers.7 The nopales or tender leaves or pads of the prickly pear cactus are also useful, especially when boiling or grilling vegetable dishes.
Prickly pear’s cosmetic purposes should be recognized, too. The gel-like sap from the fruit is often added to or used as hair conditioner,8 while prickly pear seed oil may be used to:9,10
✓ Make hair shiny and soft
✓ Protect skin and scalp from the sun and wind, as well as environmental pollutants
✓ Support cell renewal
✓ Help eliminate dark spots
✓ Strengthen the nails
✓ Relieve minor sores
Tips to Cook Prickly Pear at Home
Ideally, you should buy fruits that are small, smooth, unblemished and deep-colored. Avoid moldy or broken fruits. The skin should be shiny, while the fruit itself should feel firm but not hard. A sign of a ripe prickly pear fruit (it usually ripens within a week) is that it’ll yield to gentle pressure.11
Store prickly pear in a plastic bag and place inside the refrigerator for two to three days. You may also store prickly pear at room temperature for a few days, where it will ripen and soften.12
What’s the Proper Way to Eat Prickly Pear?
Careful preparation is a must prior to eating prickly pear, because of its sharp spines. Wear thick leather gloves and have a sharp knife and/or a pair of pliers ready. Harvest to Table suggests cutting prickly pear as follows:13
"• Remove the sharp spines with pliers. Cut off ends of the pear, make a shallow slit in the skin down the length of the fruit and peel back both the inner and outer layers back from top to bottom with a sharp knife.
• The prickly pear can have small, stinging [and] nearly invisible hairs. You can remove these hairs by passing the fruit through an open flame.
• To remove the seeds, press the fruit through a sieve of food mill. "
Prickly Pear Recipe You Can Try:
Prickly Pear Juice
✓ 6 red prickly pears
✓ 2 limes
✓ Raw honey, stevia or Luo Han, to taste
- Peel the fruits, but do not hold them with your hands because they have tiny thorns.
- Cut in pieces and process with 4 cups water, lime juice and raw honey, stevia or Luo Han.
- Strain and pour in a jar, or serve immediately with some ice if you want.
If prickly pear is not abundant in your area, check the international and/or produce section at your supermarket. Prickly pear jellies and syrups are also available at large grocery stores,15 but be careful when purchasing these, since these products may be made with high amounts of sugar that can be damaging to your health.
Moreover, there are side effects linked to eating prickly pear fruit itself or dietary supplements made from it, including:
- Increased stool volume and frequently
- Mild diarrhea
- Abdominal fullness
Slowly ease prickly pear into the diet first before consuming large amounts, and/or consult your physician to confirm if adding this fruit to your diet is a good idea.
While this fruit provides already provides an array of impressive health benefits, prickly pear’s nutritional value also speaks greatly for itself:
|Calories from Fat||4|
|Total Fat||1 g||1%|
|Saturated Fat||0 g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrates||10 g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber||4 g||14%|
|Vitamin A 1%||Vitamin C||23%|
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
- 1 “Prickly Pear Cactus,” DesertUSA
- 2 “Prickly pear cactus,” Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, Encyclopedia
- 3 “Prickly Pear Cactus Plant (Opuntia Ficus-Indica),” HerbWisdom
- 4 See ref. 3
- 5 “Nutritive value and chemical composition of prickly pear seeds (Opuntia ficus indica L.) growing in Turkey,” Int J Food Sci Nutr
- 6 See ref. 3
- 7 See ref. 3
- 8 See ref. 3
- 9 Perkins, “The Benefits of Prickly Pear for Hair,” Naturally Curly, February 19, 2016
- 10 Gregory, “Beauty Benefits of Prickly Pear Seed Oil,” Skinny Mom, March 17, 2015
- 11 Albert, “Prickly Pear: Kitchen Basics,” Harvest to Table, September 15, 2008
- 12 See ref. 12
- 13 See ref. 11
- 14 “Prickly Pear Juice/ Jugo de Tuna,” Peru Delights, June 16, 2016
- 15 See ref. 3