Sweet, delicious prickly pear (cactus pear) are round to oval fruits obtained from the cactus plants. Although several hundred cultivar types of cactus grow in their natural habitat, particularly in arid and dry lands, edible fruits are usually gathered from commercially grown Opuntia ficus-indica species.
Some of the common names are cactus fruit, barbary fig, tuna cactus, etc.
|Prickly pears. Note Red and yellow varieties.|
Native inhabitants of Mexico and Southwestern USA understood the food and medicinal values of opuntia for a very long time. Spanish explorers introduced them to Europe and North Africa. Today, cactus pears are gaining popularity in the rest of the US and among Europeans.
Cacti are evergreen, modified stem plants. They are thought to have originated in the deserts of Mexico, where they readily grow under semi-arid and desert climates. Cactus leaves are actually flat, oval, and pad-like stems (nopales) gathered for edible pads and as animal fodder.
During the spring, attractive blooms appear in red, white, or purple along the edge of pads (cladodes), which subsequently develop into pear-shaped delicious fruits. Each fruit is a berry that measures about 5 cm in diameter and weighs about 100-150 grams. Their outer rind is marked by nodules containing fine spines (glochids), and hence they are known as prickly pears.
Inside, the fruit features pink, yellow, or off-white flesh and tiny edible seeds interspersed all over the fruit as in pitahaya. The flavor is described as juicy, fairly sweet, and pleasantly scented.
Prickly pears are closely related to another cactus produce, dragon fruit. Fresh cactus pear is low in energy, carrying just about 41 calories per 100 g. Nonetheless, it holds many health-benefiting antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and fiber.
Its deep red, juicy pulp contains ample amounts of betalain (betacyanin and betaxanthin) pigment anti-oxidants. These substances help the human body fight against inflammation, cancers, and aging. These pigments are also found in beets, chard, amaranth, and some mushrooms.
Tuna cactus flesh contains a good amount of dietary fiber. This roughage binds to cancer-causing toxins and chemicals in the colon thereby protecting its mucosa from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), cancers, and diverticulitis. Also, it helps reduce fat absorption and blood LDL-cholesterol levels.
The fruit is a modest source of antioxidant vitamin-C; providing about 14 mg per 100 g or about 24% of the DRI (daily-recommended intake). Consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps the body develop resistance to combat infectious agents and scavenge harmful free radicals.
Yellow and red flesh varieties contains small amunts of vitamin-A, and carotenes. Together; these compounds have been known to have antioxidant properties and are essential for vision. Vitamin A is also required for maintaining healthy mucosa and skin. Consumption of natural fruits rich in carotenes is known to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers.
It also contains good amounts of minerals like calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Manganese is utilized as a co-factor for the powerful antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Calcium and magnesium are important bone-strengthening minerals.
The fruit is a modest source of many vital B-complex groups of vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), etc.
|Principle||Nutrient Value||Percent of RDA|
|Total Fat||0.51 g||2.5%|
|Dietary Fiber||3.6 g||9%|
|Vitamin A||43 IU||1.5%|
|Vitamin C||14 mg||23%|
Fresh cactus pear appears in the markets from early spring until fall, reaching the peak in summer. Fresh fruit is harvested by hand when its skin turns deep in color. In the markets, look for intact, completely mature fruits that just yield just to thumb pressure.
Avoid overly hard fruits as they oftentimes cease ripening after the harvest. Also, do not buy very soft, mushy, or shriveled fruits.
Ripe cactus fruits last for 3-5 days at room temperature.
At home, ripe cactus is best enjoyed soon after purchase. For extended usage, keep them in the fridge for 5-7 days. Cut sections, wrapped in a thin plastic cover, can stay well for a week if stored in the refrigerator set at appropriate humidity.
Prickly pears that still have their spikes must be handled carefully. To prepare, slice the outer rind using a knife. Use thick gloves if required. You can also peel the skin in case of completely ripe fruits. Trim off both ends. Cut the flesh into cubes or slices as you may wish.
Here are some serving tips:
Fresh, ripe cactus fruits are best enjoyed on their own without any seasonings/additions. Its peel is tough and inedible. Cut the fruit in half. Scoop the flesh using a spoon. Enjoy their rich, unique flavor of flesh and the crunchy texture of tiny black seeds.>
Fresh prickly pear cubes can be a great addition to fruit salads.
It is also employed in the preparation of ice creams, jams, marmalades, jellies, etc.
Accidental handling of barged spikes in the tufts (glochids) can elicit long-lasting pain and irritation at the site of contact. In untreated cases, granulomatous lesions may manifest in some people. Prepared prickly pears, however, can be safely eaten by pregnant mothers and children as well. (Medical disclaimer).
You may also like to read:-
Nopales nutrition facts and health benefits.
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Further reading and Resources:
Prickly Pear Cactus: Food of the Desert. link opens in a new window.