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Nopales (Cactus) nutrition facts

Nopales are thick, oval, flat, modified stems of cactus plant, eaten as a vegetable. Its young tender pads known as nopalitos are one of the chief components of Mexican cuisine since centuries and today, gaining popularity among Europeans and US for their health benefiting properties.

The cactus species is thought to have originated in the desert lands of Mexico. Over two hundred Cactaceae cultivars grow in their natural habitat, particularly in semi-arid and dry lands of northern Mexico. Edible cactus paddles are usually gathered from Opuntia ficus-indica species.

Nopales. Note for spines on the surface.
(Photo courtesy: Paul and Jill)

Cactus is a modified evergreen plant that grows easily under semi-arid and desert climates. Cactus leaves are actually flat, oval, and pad-shape stems but misinterpreted as leaves. On the cactus plant, its segmented stems stack one over the other in odd angles arising directly from the root. Completely grown plant may grow upto 10-12 feet in height; however, in the farms, their growth is truncated to about 4-5 feet. Nople pad surface is covered with sharp spines (golchids) at the nodes.

Attractive blooms begin to appear during spring all along the edge of pads, which subsequently develop into pear shaped delicious "cactus fruits". The fruit, commonly known as prickly pear, is actually popular in the whole Latin world as "tuna." Each tuna fruit measure about 5 cm in diameter and weigh about 75-100 g. Sweet and juicy, their taste is somewhat reminiscence of watermelon and strawberry combination.

Health benefits of nopales

  • Nopales are one of very low calorie vegetables. 100 g of fresh leaves carry just 16 calories. Nonetheless, its modified leaves (paddles) have many vital phytochemicals, fiber, anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can immensely benefit health.

  • The succulent paddles are rich sources of dietary fiber, especially non-carbohydrate polysaccharides, such as pectin, mucilage and hemicellulose. Together, these substances help bring reduction in body weight, LDL-cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. This rich fiber and mucilaginous content in cactus pads aid in smooth passage of digested food particles through the gut and help relieve constipation problems.

  • In addition, the juice extracted from the noples has been suggested to have immune-booster, and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Cactus pads feature moderate amounts of vitamin A with 100 g fresh pads carrying about 457 IU of vitamin A, and 250 µg of ß-carotene. ß-carotene converted into vitamin-A inside the body. Studies found that vitamin A and flavonoid compounds in vegetables help protect from skin, lung and oral cavity cancers.

  • Further, nopal pads contain small levels of B-complex group of vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), and pantothenic acid. These vitamins are essential for optimum cellular enzymatic and metabolic functions inside the human body.

  • Fresh pads contain average levels of vitamin-C. 100 g provides 9.3 mg or 15% of this vitamin. Vitamin C is a water-soluble, natural anti-oxidant, which helps the body protect from scurvy and offer resistance against infectious agents (boost immunity), and help scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals from the body.

  • They contain small amounts of minerals, especially calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron.

Selection and storage

Young, tender, succulent cacti-paddles are generally gathered during spring in Mexico for local use and to export to Europe and USA. Fresh nopales can readily be available in the southern US states where sizable Mexican communities live. One can find canned nopalitos in brine in grocery stores as well.

Buy fresh, firm, pale green nopal pads from the farmer's markets specializing in Mexican vegetables. Avoid thick, mature leaves as they are rough, pithy and out of flavor.

Once at home, raw pads can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week or so. Diced or cut pads should be used as early as possible.

Preparation and serving methods

Nopales, fresh or preserved, have been main part of traditional Mexican cuisine, especially during lean days. To prepare, hold the pad at its base and gently scrape off all the spines and bristle on either sides using a blunt knife. Wash in cold water and mop dry using a soft cloth. Then, using a vegetable peeler, trim away its excess skin at the nodules. Cut into small cubes or uniform strips (nopaliots) as you may desire. One may also buy freshly prepared ready to use diced pads or nopalitos (strips) from the stores.

The flavor of fresh nopales feature a mix of asparagus and french bean; in addition to having a chewy texture.

Here are some serving tips:

Mexican nopales dish1
Mexican nopales dish. Note for cactus strips mixed with scrabled egg on the right side.
(Photo courtesy: pointnshoot)
  • They can be eaten raw in salads (ensalada di nopales) and salsa (nopal de salsa) with onion, tomato seasoned with salt, pepper, and dried-oregano and dress with olive oil.

  • Fresh nopal is used in soups, stews, juices, and cooked as a vegetable.

  • Fry strips in nopalitos fritos.

  • Boiled, and roast or grilled nopalitos are again eaten as a delicious side dish.

  • Pickled nopal is a favorite appetizer. Diced nopalitos, onion, tomato sauteed with scrambled eggs is a favorite breakfast during the lent season in Mexico.

  • Cactus pad (nopalea) juice produced industrially has been marketed as wellness drink for its health benefiting properties, however, such claims yet to be proven scientifically.

Safety profile

Cactus paddles are safely eaten by native Mexicans as part of their routine diet since centuries. Allergy to cactus is quite rare; however, individuals with known allergy to cactus should avoid using them entirely. Farmers who handle spiny-cactus while harvesting may sustain pricks, scratches, bruise and therefore, should wear protective gloves, costumes, etc., to be on a safer side. (Medical disclaimer).

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Further resources:

1. Nopal verdura-pdf. (Link opens in new window).

2. USDA National Nutrient Database.

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