Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia), called nopal in Spanish, is a plant native to Mexico and the American southwest that is now widely cultivated in many parts of the world, especially the Mediterranean regions.
It is a genus of the cactus family that consists of more than 300 species, all native to the Americas, and grows from the northern United States to Patagonia, where they grow wild.
Cactus has few demands on their management, resulting in remarkably high tolerance for nutrient-poor or subjected to poor methods of irrigation, fertilization and pest control soils. Therefore, it survives both in the desert and snow, from sea level to elevations of over 10,000 feet.
It is said to be a native of Mexico, where it is considered the symbol of identity of the Mexican people and is even included on the Mexican flag, depicting a Mexican golden eagle perched upon the Opuntia cactus, devouring a snake.
The cactus plant is a tree that can reach 15 feet. Nopal has a woody trunk and large top, many oblong joints, small, yellow barbed spines, bright yellow flowers and red fruit with a juicy, white, sweet flesh and numerous black seeds.
Its flowers are large and open, colors vary depending on the species and the time of its formation, can be white, yellow, orange, red or purple. The cactus fruit is called tuna.
Only the young plant is eaten; older plants are too tough. Prickly pear cactus is also used for medicine.
COMPONENTS AND NUTRITION
Prickly Pear Cactus is rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, and also contains, in various proportions, different carbohydrate or carbohydrate and nitrogenous components. Nopal is rich in fiber, vitamins (A, B, B2, C and K), riboflavin, vitamin B6, chlorophyll and protein.
Several studies show how valuable it is to support health. Its nutrients support the immune, glandular, nervous, circulatory, respiratory and digestive system.
Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections.
Nopal contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.
ANTIBIOTIC: The nopal is a natural antibiotics, this property is related to the crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) in the plant, which in cacti inhibits or stops the growth of several bacterial species. Hence both the consumption of nopal as well as applying poultices from its leaves, have beneficial effects on wounds and skin infections.
ATEREOSCLEROSIS: The Cactus has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components, they are in the form of polyphenols , sterols and glycoproteins. In addition and equally as important is that regular fresh nopal cactus juice concentrate or powder help to prevent the primary cause of heart disease.
BLOOD PRESSURE: Each 4-ounce prickly pear provides 227 milligrams of potassium. A high-potassium, low-sodium diet can prevent high blood pressure or help you lower your blood pressure if it is already high.
CANCER: The cactus contains a lot of dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. The insoluble dietary fiber absorbs water and gently supports the passage of food through the digestive tract and contributes significantly to regulate the movements of the whole system. In turn, the presence of these dietary fibers helps to dilute the concentration of potentially cancerous cells that arise in the colon.
CARDIOVASCULAR SUPPORT: The antimicrobial and antioxidant effects of Nopal cactus (Prickly Pear) may promote excellent heart health.
CHOLESTEROL: Nopal cactus fruit contains 3.7 grams of dietary fiber, which lowers levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Another benefit of prickly pears is that they are free from saturated fat and cholesterol, which are cholesterol-raising components in many foods.
COLON: The active ingredients found in the nopal, prevent the absorption of excess fat and carbohydrates, so that an appropriate balance is maintained in the blood level and obesity is controlled. As a fibrous plant, cactus contains high levels of soluble and insoluble fibers. Soluble fibers support the uptake of glucose into the intestine while insoluble fibers reduce excess bile and potential carcinogens that may arise in the colon, through the absorption and excretion, helping to keep the body clean and in good condition.
CONSTRIPATION: The fibers contained in nopal contribute to good digestion preventing constipation problems.
DEPRESSION SUPPORT: Nopal cactus (Prickly Pear) helps to increase the production of tryptophan which is a precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects our mood and sleep patterns) as well as niacin (which is a key vitamin for vitality and nutrient absorption).
DIABETES: Regulation of blood sugar for patients with diabetes. The 18 amino acids present in prickly pear cactus provide more energy and reduce fatigue by helping to reduce the level of blood sugar. Nopal strengthens the liver and pancreas by increasing insulin sensitivity, which simulates the motion of the glucose in the cells of the body where it is used for energy, thereby regulating the level of blood sugar. It also decreases the digestion of carbohydrates by reducing insulin production.
DIGESTION: Vitamins naturally available in the nopal, such as B1, B2, B3 and C, plus minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and iron, assist in detoxifying the body in general. Its antioxidant power provides adequate protection from environmental toxins and reduces the harmful effects smoking or drinking alcohol.
GASTRIC ULCERS: Vegetable fibers of the prickly cactus control excess gastric acid production and protect the stomach lining and intestines.
HYPER GLUCEMIA – High blood sugar levels: It has been clinically proven in studies that nopal helps reduce hyperglycemia before and after meals. The nopal cactus has been shown to contain a unique profile of high amounts of insoluble and soluble fibers. These dietary fibers levels help prevent rapid absorption of simple carbohydrates such as sugars in the blood stream during the digestion stage of a consumed meal.
INMONOLOGICAL SYSTEM: The cactus contains vitamins A, B complex, C, minerals (calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron and fiber ( lignin, cellulose, pectin and mucilage ) which together with the 17 amino acids help eliminate toxins, detoxify and support the liver, other organs and the body in general. Environmental toxins (known as free radicals) caused by alcohol and cigarette smoke, among others, inhibit the body’s immune system. However consumption of nopal eliminates its presence. The phytochemicals present in the cactus are powerful allies for the immune system, so the body can optimally defend against attack by pathogens.
LIVER AND PANCREAS: Compared to other plants the prickly pear cactus is very high in nutrients that help strengthen the liver and pancreas. The health of these two glands is very important to convert carbohydrates into glycogen which can be used as energy for the body.
OBESITY: Due to the high amount of fiber the prickly pear cactus helps delay the time at which nutrients are absorbed and enter the blood and therefore facilitates removal. Similarly, plant proteins liquids are mobilized faster through the bloodstream, contributing to the reduction of cellulite and fluid retention. It is therefore recommended to take it with orange juice or other citrus. Also, the insoluble fibers it contains create a feeling of fullness, thereby lowering the hunger of the people and help a good digestion because it supports in regulating bowel movement.
URINARY SYSTEM: The juice of nopal is used to reduce pain in the urinary system.
ADDITIONAL HEALTH BENEFITS
- Eye health
- Immune system boost
- Increase in energy
- Neutralization of free radicals
- Protect cells from toxins
- Protection against fluid retention
- Protection from premature aging
- Protects your liver
- Reduces blood cholesterol
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces the risk of blood clot
Also the pulp of the tuna fruit is very effective against diarrhea, and roasted leaves were used as a poultice (for pain and inflammation in cases of burn), while the root is extremely useful for the treatment of hernia, liver irritation, stomach. And a small paste helps with toothache.
COSMETIC: The cactus has many properties in chemical composition that can be used to develop cosmetics. Obviously, their use brings all your nutritional properties to benefit the skin and hair of humans.
To do this, different processes have been used for soaps, creams for various applications like in shampoo, rinse, conditioners, masks, night cream, astringent lotion, shower gel, stylizing hair gel, ointment, eye shadows and other products derived from nopal. All this because the cactus has an excellent property to retain moisture in the skin.
PURCHASE AND CONSERVATION
In Mexico fresh nopales are readily available in the market or at any supermarket. In the United States they are available in Mexican grocery stores or in some large supermarkets that have fresh Mexican vegetables.
Sometimes nopales can be bought in bags where it has been cut into strips or small squares. If you use whole fresh nopales, however, you will have to remove the thorns before eating it fresh or cooking.
If you are going to cook with your nopales the same day, keep them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, it can be kept well for several days.
CLEANING AND COOKING
No matter how you prepare nopales, it will be necessary to remove the thorns first. This is done by taking the stalk carefully in one hand and in the other a very sharp knife.
Using a sharp knife, scrape the nopal at the base of each spine so that it is separated from the stalk. Work slowly and carefully.
HOW TO EAT
The use of nopal is diverse: it could be used in juices, sweets, sauces, salads, stews, jams, broths, soups and many other ways, is also found in a dehydrated powder form which you can use in smoothies, soups, juices, etc.