Q: Is prickly pear cactus a good food? What about its medicinal qualities, or the juice made from it?
A: Prickly pear cactus—also known as Opuntia, nopales, nopal, or paddle cactus—is nutritious, but no powerhouse. The pads contain some potassium, plus a little calcium, iron, vitamin C, and beta carotene, as well as some other potentially beneficial compounds. In its natural state the cactus has sharp thorns, and you must wear heavy gloves to remove them. The pads you see in specialty stores have often been de-thorned. They also have hair-like spines that have to be removed. Once cleaned and trimmed, the pads are good raw in salads, stir-fried, or boiled. They taste something like green beans, and have an okra-like texture.
The cactus bears an edible fruit with a hairy skin that must be peeled. The fruit, which tastes a bit like melon or strawberries, is also made into pancake syrup and candy.
All kinds of powers are ascribed to prickly pear cactus, from curing hangovers to regulating body weight and alleviating diabetes. You can buy it in capsules or as a gel. Preliminary research suggests that substances in prickly pear may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But so far there’s no convincing evidence that the plant (or supplements made from it) is effective as a medical treatment. If you take drugs for diabetes, there’s concern that the supplements may produce unwanted interactions.
Buyer beware: Nopal juice has joined the ranks of “super juices” on the market, along with açaí and pomegranate. It comes with the predictable claims of “detoxifying” the body, protecting against inflammation and aging, and boosting immunity. A quart of the concentrate costs $25 to $40. Many common juices are also rich in antioxidants and cost a lot less.
Also see Dragon Fruit.