Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus, (Opuntia ficus-indica), is an edible cactus plant that grows in the arid and semi-arid regions of the World. Broad, flat leaves and sharp spines characterise the Prickly Pear Cactus, and the colorful flowers turn into edible, bulb-shaped fruits.

Prickly Pear Cactus Grow Around the World

Prickly Pear Cactus is an important commercial crop in Mexico, Latin America, North Africa, the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East.

The fruit is fleshy and comes in various colors, including red, purple, and yellow, depending on the species and ripeness.

Edible Parts of Prickly Pear Cactus

Grown mostly as a fruit crop, the plant is valued for its large, sweet fruits which are commonly known as the “prickly pear” or “cactus pear.” The fruits are used typically used to make candies, jellies, jams, syrups, juices and even alcoholic beverages.

The tender leaves or pads of the cactus, called nopales, often appear in boiled or grilled vegetable dishes, particularly in Mexican cuisine.

Nutritional Value of Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly pear cactus is a superfood that can supplement a healthy diet. The high-fiber cactus is rich in antioxidants and carotenoids. Practically the entire plant is edible and nutritious, from the flowers and fruits to the stems and leaves.

Prickly pear extract is typically derived from the fruit. The extract is obtained by processing the pulp of the fruit. The pulp is rich in various beneficial compounds, including; antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

In addition to the fruit, other parts of the prickly pear cactus, such as the pads (cladodes or nopales), are also edible and may have their own nutritional and health benefits.

“The International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition” reports that prickly pear cactus is a good source of several important minerals including; calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.

The prickly pear seed also contains linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid with numerous health benefits. The reason that it’s considered an ‘essential’ fatty acid is because it contains 2 double bonds at the ninth and 12th carbons from the carbonyl functional group. Humans cannot synthesize from food sources any molecule with a double bond beyond the ninth carbon of a fatty acid, so this fatty acid must be consumed with the double bonds already in place in the molecule.

Health Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly pear fruit, and various other parts of the plant, have many medicinal uses due to the rich nutrient profile.

People who practice a healthy, natural lifestyle often promote prickly pear cactus as a superfood. They cite the antiviral, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties of the plant. In Mexican folk medicine, the cactus pulp and juice are used to treat skin wounds, stomach swelling, digestive problems and urinary tract infections.

In modern holistic medicine, prickly pear cactus extract and supplements are used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, colitis, diarrhea and benign enlargement of the prostate gland. Prickly pear lollipops are sometimes used as a weight loss aid to treat obesity and overweight. The natural extract is a useful remedy for alcohol hangovers.

Below we will explore some of the health benefits of prickly pear cactus in more detail:

Prickly Pear Cactus is Nutrient Rich

Prickly pear cactus is a good source of essential vitamins and minerals, including; vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B9 (folate), calcium, magnesium, potassium and manganese.

Antioxidant Properties of Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly pear cactus contains various antioxidants, such as flavonoids, polyphenols, and betalains. These compounds help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, and potentially lowering the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Prickly Pear Cactus Supports Digestive Health

Prickly pear cactus is rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Fiber aids digestion, promotes regular bowel movements, and can help prevent constipation. Additionally, some studies suggest that prickly pear cactus may have prebiotic effects, promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.

Prickly Pear Cactus to Control Blood Sugar

Some research suggests that prickly pear cactus may help regulate blood sugar levels, making it potentially beneficial for individuals with diabetes or those at risk of developing diabetes. Compounds found in prickly pear cactus, such as pectin and fiber, may slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.

Prickly Pear Cactus for Cholesterol Management

Prickly pear cactus may have cholesterol-lowering effects, potentially reducing levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. This could contribute to a lower risk of heart disease and improve overall heart health.

Anti-inflammatory Effects of Prickly Pear Cactus

Compounds found in prickly pear cactus, including betalains, have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties in some studies. These effects may help reduce inflammation in the body and alleviate symptoms associated with conditions like arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Prickly Pear Cactus for Hydration

The flesh of prickly pear cactus contains high water content, making it hydrating and refreshing. Consuming prickly pear or prickly pear juice can help maintain hydration levels, especially in hot climates or during periods of physical activity.

Prickly Pear Seed Oil for Hair Health

Prickly pear extract is used in a variety of products, including; dietary supplements, hair and skincare products and beverages, due to its potential health benefits and nutritional content.

The plant’s gel-like sap is often used as a hair conditioner. In addition, prickly pear seed oil is used as a nourishing hair oil.

A popular use of prickly pear seed oil is as a nourishing hair oil. Prickly pear seed oil contains fatty acids, amino acids, antioxidants and vitamin E, which make a great daily hair conditioner for dry, frizzy and damaged hair. The best way to apply it is to damp hair, after it’s been washed. A small amount on the palm is all that’s needed to be massaged into the hair. Avoid the scalp area though as it can soon look greasy.

To use as a treatment oil, apply it to the scalp area too and massage it in. Leave it in overnight, then wash your hair the next morning. You can then apply more as a daily treatment, as described above. You will find that it gives your hair shine and volume, whilst stimulating hair growth by treating the scalp.

Prickly Pear Cactus Scientific Studies

According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, preliminary studies indicate that prickly pear extract may decrease blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. The fiber and pectin found within the cactus appears to lower blood sugar by decreasing sugar absorption in the stomach and intestines. The plant extract improves insulin sensitivity, and it also protects the liver from oxidation.

In other research, prickly pear extract was shown to ease the unpleasant effects and pain of an alcohol hangover.

Scientists continue to study the impact of prickly pear properties on; cholesterol levels, blood clotting activity, viral infections and other health issues.

Prickly Pear Cactus Supplements

As well as being edible as a superfood, prickly pear cactus is available as a supplement, usually as oils or extracts in capsules.

Always take care when taking herbs and Read Our Disclaimer.

Prickly Pear Notes / Side Effects

Medical doctors, nutritionists and holistic practitioners recommend that people gradually add prickly pear cactus to their diets. Both the edible plant and the dietary supplements can cause negative side effects in some people. Nausea, increased stool volume and frequency, mild diarrhoea and abdominal fullness are the most common side effects. While they are not the norm, easing prickly pear into the diet can minimise these effects.

Latin Name

Opuntia ficus-indica

Other Names

The English names for the plant and its fruit are:
Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, cactus pear, spineless cactus, and prickly pear, although this last name has also been applied to other less common Opuntia species.

Other names for the plant and its fruit are:

(Mexico) the plant is called nopal, and the fruit is called prickly pear (if it is sweet) or xoconostle (if it is sour)
(Peru) prickly pear.
(Bolivia) the plant is called penco, and the fruit is called prickly pear.
(Chile) prickly pear.
(Argentina) prickly pear.
(Uruguay) prickly pear fig.
(Colombia) prickly pear fig.
(Ecuador) prickly pear fig.
(Spain) Prickly pear, prickly pear, fig, prickly pear, prickly pear fig, fig , prickly pear fig, prickly pear fig, nopal, nopalera, pala, penca, prickly pear, tunal.
(Italy) fico d’India (Indian fig)
(England)Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, cactus pear, spineless cactus, and prickly pear, although the latter name has also been applied to other less common Opuntia species.
(Canary Islands) fig or prickly pear; The plant is called tunera, and the leaf is called penca.

Cactus decumanus Willd, Cactus ficus-indica L., Opuntia amyclaea Ten, Opuntia cordobensis Speg, Opuntia decumana (Willd.) Haw, Opuntia gymnocarpa F. A. C. Weber, Opuntia hispanica Griffiths, Opuntia maxima Mill, Opuntia megacantha Salm-Dyck, Opuntia paraguayensis K. Schum.

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