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Nopales (Cactus) Nutrition facts

Nopales are thick, oval, flat, modified stems of the cactus plant eaten as a vegetable. Its soft pads, known as nopalitos, have been one of the chief components of Mexican cuisine since olden times and today, gaining popularity among the Europeans and the US for their health-benefiting profile.

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 the semi-arid and dry areas of northern Mexico. Edible cactus paddles, however, gathered from the Opuntia ficus-indica (Barbary fig) plants.

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

Cactus is a modified evergreen plant that grows well in semi-arid and desert climates. Cactus leaves are actually flat, oval, and pad-shaped stems but are misinterpreted as leaves.

On the cactus plant, its segmented stems stack one over the other in odd angles arising directly from the root. The completely grown-up plant may reach up to 10-12 feet in height; however, in cultivated farms, their growth is truncated to about 4-5 feet. The nopal pad surface is covered with sharp spines (glochids) at the nodes.

Attractive blooms appear in the spring along the sides of pads that 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."

A cactus berry measures about 5 cm in diameter and weighs about 75-100 g. Sweet and juicy; their taste is somewhat reminiscence of combinations of watermelon and strawberry.

Health benefits of Nopales

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

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

  3. Also, the juice extracted from the nopal has been suggested to have an immune booster and anti-inflammatory properties.

  4. 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 human body. Studies found that vitamin A and flavonoid compounds in vegetables help protect from skin, lung, and oral cavity cancers.

  5. Further, nopal pads contain small levels of the 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.

  6. 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 antioxidant, that helps the body protect from scurvy offers resistance against infectious agents (boosts immunity), and helps scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals from the body.

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

See the table below for in depth analysis of nutrients:

Nopales nutrition profile (Opuntia ficus-indica), raw pads, value per 100 g. (Source: USDA National Nutrient data base)

Principle Nutrient Value Percent of RDA
Energy 16 Kcal <1%
Carbohydrates 3.33 g 2.56%
Protein 1.32 g 2%
Total Fat 0.09 g <1%
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Dietary Fiber 2.2 g 5.5%
Folates 3 µg <1%
Niacin 0.410 mg 2.5%
Pantothenic acid 0.167 mg 3%
Pyridoxine 0.070 mg 6%
Riboflavin 0.041 mg 3%
Thiamin 0.012 mg 1%
Vitamin C 9.3 mg 15.5%
Vitamin A 457 IU 15%
Vitamin E 0.00 mg 0%
Vitamin K 5.3 µg 4.4%
Sodium 21 mg 1.5%
Potassium 257 mg 5.4%
Calcium 164 mg 16%
Copper 0.052 mg 6%
Iron 0.59 mg 7%
Magnesium 52 mg 13%
Manganese 0.457 mg 20%
Phosphorus 16 mg 3%
Selenium 0.7 µg 1%
Zinc 0.21 mg 5%
Carotene-ß 250 µg
Carotene-α 48 µg
Lutein-zeaxanthin 0 µg

Selection and storage

Young, tender, succulent cacti-paddles are generally gathered during spring in Mexico for local use and to export to Europe and the 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 pads 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 the 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 bristles on either side using a blunt knife. Wash in cold water and mop dry using a soft cloth. Then, using a vegetable peeler, trim away the 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 nopales (strips) from the stores.

The flavor of fresh nopales features 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 scrambled 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, 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 (nopal) juice produced industrially has been marketed as a wellness drink for its health-benefiting properties. However, such claims have yet to be proven scientifically.

Safety profile

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

You may also like yo read:-≻≻-Read Prickly pear (tuna) nutrition facts and health benefits.

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Further reading:

  1. Study of Nutritional Composition of Nopal (Opuntia ficus indica cv. Redonda) at Different Maturity Stages-pdf. (Link opens in new window).

  2. USDA National Nutrient Database.

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