The prickly pear cactus, or nopal, produces edible leaf-like pads called nopales. After the spines are removed, the result is a vegetable often described as tasting like a green bean. A cup of sliced nopales has just 14 calories and one-tenth of a gram of fat, yet they're rich sources of B vitamins, vitamin A, iron and several other essential nutrients.
Nopales contain pectin, which is a soluble fiber. In the digestive tract, soluble fiber becomes gel-like, which slows the absorption of food and inhibits spikes in blood sugar after you eat. Soluble fiber also lowers cholesterol by helping to eliminate it from your body. You’ll get 2 grams of fiber in 1 cup of nopales, which represents 5 percent of the recommended daily intake for men and 8 percent for women.
Most calcium resides in your bones, but the small amount that circulates through your system keeps your heart beating and stimulates nerve impulses. No matter how much calcium you consume, the amount in your blood always remains the same because the body maintains strict levels to guarantee enough for your heart and nerves. Bones also need a continuous supply to replace old minerals and stay strong, but if you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, it's taken from your bones to keep blood levels stable. One cup of nopales delivers 14 percent of the recommended daily intake of calcium.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals. When free radicals aren’t neutralized, they damage healthy cells. In the skin, that leads to dryness and wrinkles. Inside the body, the cellular damage from free radicals can result in chronic health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis. Women need 75 milligrams of vitamin C daily and men need 90 milligrams, but the amount goes up to 85 milligrams for pregnant women and 120 milligrams if you’re breastfeeding. Anyone who smokes should add another 35 milligrams to these recommended amounts. One cup of nopales has 8 milligrams of vitamin C.
Flavonoids are pigments that give fruits and vegetables their colors, but in the human body, they function as antioxidants. There are many different types of flavonoids, but one that’s found in nopales is quercetin. In addition to its antioxidant abilities, quercetin suppresses inflammation, helps kill viruses, and may inhibit the growth of some types of cancer.
Fresh nopales should be bright green and firm. Use tongs to hold the pad, or wear gloves to protect your hands, and then scrape the skin with a knife to remove all the spines and eyes. After trimming the edges, brush the pad with oil and grill it, or cut the pad into strips and boil them in salted water until they’re tender. Add boiled nopales to salads, or mix them with eggs, stews or meat mixtures for fajitas and tacos. Raw chunks of nopales are good for thickening soup broth.
Young nopales have a small amount of oxalic acid, but the amount increases as the plant ages. Consuming oxalic acid may be a concern if you have a history of calcium-oxalate kidney stones.
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Nopales, Raw
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium
- The National Academies Press: Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium and Carotenoids
- USDA: Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods
- University of Wisconsin: Oxalate
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Genus Opuntia
- Drugs.com: Prickly Pear
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.