I’m a registered dietitian. Part of my job is easy—a lot of the time, people already know that fruits and vegetables are a healthy, important part of a balanced diet. The hard part comes next, when these people tend to get stuck in a rut of the same fruits and vegetables. You know: kale, spinach, carrots, apples, berries, bananas on repeat. These foods are all great, but they can get boring if you don’t switch things up.
I love recommending cactus to my clients for this exact purpose. (In addition to being a dietitian, I’m also a first generation Mexican-American.) Cactus can be a fruit, a vegetable, or both (we’ll get to that in a sec) that’s commonly associated with Mexican food, but grows abundantly in the United States. While cacti are popular among gardening enthusiasts, it’s also an excellent food source.
How Can You Eat Cactus?
The cactus most commonly used as a food source is the prickly pear cactus. This is a relatively drought-tolerant plant that grows abundantly across the southern United States and Mexico. Depending on the part you eat, cactus can be considered a fruit or a vegetable. You may see the veggie portion, which looks like green pads, and the fruits, which look like purple, pink, or green eggs (but a little larger), in Hispanic and Latine grocery stores. Powdered cactus pads are a popular dietary supplement, and cactus drinks are growing in popularity in the US.
Nopales are the green pads of the prickly pear cactus plant. The thorns are removed from the pads, which can then be prepared and served like a vegetable. When you buy them in the store, they’ll either be in the produce section in whole pieces (but with the thorns cut off) or cut into strips and canned or jarred. Nopales have a tangy flavor and a slightly gel-like texture, similar to okra. They’re commonly served with scrambled eggs as a breakfast dish, or grilled on their own as a side dish. Pickled nopales are also popular and make a tasty addition to salads.
Prickly pear is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus that grows on the edges of the plant’s green paddles and comes in a variety of colors. A deep purple-pink is most common. You may have also seen this fruit called cactus pear, or “tuna” in Spanish. Prickly pear has a mild flavor and is usually eaten on its own as a fruit, although you may also see it as a flavor in smoothies, juices, and jams. When you buy it in a store, it’s usually found whole in the produce aisle.
4 Reasons Why Cactus Is Healthy
1. Cactus Paddles May Help Lower Blood Sugar
One systematic review showed that eating nopal at mealtimes may have a hypoglycemic effect Medicina “Effects of the Consumption of Prickly Pear Cacti (Opuntia spp.) and its Products on Blood Glucose Levels and Insulin: A Systematic Review” View Source , which means it lowers your blood sugar after your meal. This can be beneficial in keeping your sugar levels moderate after a meal so there’s no sugar spike and crash. However, it’s important to note that most of the studies were conducted on men and the full intervention included exercise, which also has a similar effect of lowering blood sugar. In healthy adults and adults with Type 2 Diabetes, regularly consuming green nopales over a period of 10 days was associated with lower fasting blood sugar. While the exact mechanism that has the hypoglycemic effect is unclear, researchers believe it may be related to the high-fiber content in the nopales. That said, it’s not a diabetes treatment, and it’s always best to follow a physician’s advice before pursuing alternative methods.
2. Prickly Pear May be a Heart-Healthy Fruit
Prickly pears might be the next heart-healthy superfood. The fruit is associated with lower total cholesterol levels PubMed.gov “The effects of Prickly Pear fruit and cladode (Opuntia spp.) consumption on blood lipids: A systematic review” View Source , though it’s unclear if the effects are related to the fruit, leaves, or both. While this can be attributed to factors in common with other fruits, like its fiber, vitamin, and mineral content, some experts think it may be due to the fruit’s high betalain content Frontiers “Prickly Pear Betalain-Rich Extracts as New Promising Strategy for Intestinal Inflammation: Plant Complex vs. Main Isolated Bioactive Compounds” View Source . Betalain is the compound that gives prickly pears their color. More research is needed, but initial studies show betalain’s promise as a potential antioxidant, anti-cancer, and cardiovascular benefit PubMed Central “Biological Properties and Applications of Betalains” View Source . It’s also present in other heart-healthy fruits and vegetables like beets and dragonfruit.
3. Cactus Is a Water-conscious Crop
It’s not just about our physical health—cactus may also benefit the planet’s health! Because cactus is native to arid, desert regions, they are well suited to grow in drought-like conditions. This makes them a great choice for water-efficient farming Wiley Online Library “Five-year field trial of the biomass productivity and water input response of cactus pear (Opuntia spp.) as a bioenergy feedstock for arid lands” View Source .
4. Cacti Have A Lot Vitamins and Minerals
Eating a variety of vitamins and minerals is important for overall well-being and chronic disease prevention. Nopales, like many other green vegetables, are a good source of potassium, fiber, and calcium U.S. Department of Agriculture “Nopales, raw” View Source . The prickly pear fruit is also a rich source of micronutrients, providing vitamin C and potassium U.S. Department of Agriculture “Prickly pears, raw” View Source . No matter what, cactus is a simple way to add variety! (And flavor, if you’re feeling broccoli fatigue.)
3 Ways To Eat Cactus
It’s worth pointing out that most of the health benefits listed above have only been studied in the cactus paddles (nopales) or the fruits. If you want to get all the health benefits listed above, your best bet is to find nopales or prickly pear in the grocery store. Certain regions will have them readily available at the supermarket, whereas other areas may require a visit to your local Latine grocery. Another option is to look for jarred, pickled nopales in the Latine aisle at your grocery store. Either way, the thorns will be removed for you.
It’s unclear if other products made from cactus, such as cactus water, have similar benefits. But you can still try some of these snacks that incorporate cactus for a new flavor and possible health benefits like added fiber. Here are a few to check out:
1. Pricklee Cactus Water
This canned bevvie brand blends water with prickly pear puree. It also contains agave nectar, so it’s not a sugar-free drink, but it packs a surprisingly high mineral content into each serving. Because of this, it can help increase your iron, magnesium, and B vitamin intake. Plus, it comes in a variety of flavors like mango ginger and strawberry hibiscus.
2. Nemi Snacks
These crunchy snacks are made with cactus and other healthy Mexican ingredients like amaranth, chia seeds, and spirulina. (Yes, these are all Mexican foods!). This company is Latine-owned and celebrates the rich variety of Mexican-origin ingredients and flavors, which is a big plus. Nemi Sticks are also higher in protein and fiber than your average chips, meaning they may actually help you stay full between meals.
3. Tia Lupita Cactus Tortilla Chips
Do these chips count as a vegetable? Not exactly. But the blend of cactus and cassava provides an alternative to anyone who can’t tolerate corn or grains. Plus, they’re higher in fiber than your average tortilla chip. And when they’re dipped into some fresh guacamole? That’s a great snack.
- The effects of Prickly Pear fruit and cladode (Opuntia spp.) consumption on blood lipids: A systematic review (PubMed.gov)
- Prickly Pear Betalain-Rich Extracts as New Promising Strategy for Intestinal Inflammation: Plant Complex vs. Main Isolated Bioactive Compounds (Frontiers)
- Biological Properties and Applications of Betalains (PubMed Central)
- Five-year field trial of the biomass productivity and water input response of cactus pear (Opuntia spp.) as a bioenergy feedstock for arid lands (Wiley Online Library)
- Nopales, raw (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- Prickly pears, raw (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- How Mexico is reclaiming spirulina (BBC)