The Nopal cactus, otherwise known as nopales, prickly pear cactus, or paddle cactus, is one of the world’s “SuperFoods.” How did this native to the Sonoran Desert evolve into becoming a highly desired, much-respected health food? Undoubtedly, it has something to do with the native people of northern Mexico, who have been using it as a part of their diet for generations. Its powerful role in their health and increasing studies about certain antioxidants caught the health community’s attention, making it more available and easy to find.
What is It?
Contrary to what you might think about a desert plant, the Nopal cactus (scientific name: Opuntia ficus-indica) is a highly versatile plant. While its berries, referred to as tuna or cactus fig, are picked to be used in juice, the meat and stem are staples in southwestern and Mexican cuisine.
When cooked, it is important to use young pads that are bright green, firm in texture, and thin. They can be boiled, fried, grilled, or baked after you have removed all the spines. As for the fruit, once the spines are cleaned off, you simply peel the outer skin and eat or juice the flesh and seeds.
Where Does it Come From?
The Nopal cactus is primarily found in the southwestern part of the United States and the northwestern part of Mexico, but people have successfully grown them all the way up to the Canada. They were introduced to Australia in the late 1700′s and even caused significant ecological damage in the eastern states. Today you can purchase nopal pads in many grocery stores and farmers’ markets as an inexpensive addition to chiles and salsas.
Why is it Beneficial?
Chock full of vitamins and fiber, the Nopal cactus has attained “SuperFood” status, thanks to the antioxidants found mainly in its berries. It is believed that the concentrated levels found in the berries is because of its ability to grow in the harsh desert conditions, where every resource is collected and saved. These antioxidants include betanin and indicaxanthin, which give the berry its deep red color. Most importantly, these antioxidants are considerable free radical scavengers. In other words, they protect cells from harmful molecules produced by environmental toxins and food that cause cellular damage.
Antioxidants like the Nopal cactus are believed to help the body by reducing pain and inflammation, lowering serum glucose levels for people with diabetes, decreasing LDL (“bad cholesterol”) levels, and slowing the aging process. People also report improved sleep and boosting their immune system’s defenses.
Where Can You Buy it?
On our website we promote a product called Nopalea, a respected and completely natural nopal extract and juice. You can also purchase other products from your local health foods store, but be careful to look at the packaging to check for hidden nasties (preservatives) and to ensure the formulation method extracts maximum nutrient density from the product.