These Cactus Benefits Will Sell You On This Desert Delicacy
Did you know that most cacti are edible? Yes — at least the kind you'd find in the supermarket, that is. The plant, which is consumed like a veggie, is packed with disease-busting antioxidants, gut-friendly fiber, and tons of water. But don't let its prickly peel fool you — cactus is extremely versatile, as it works well in dishes such as salads, tacos, and more.
Now, cacti aren't new to the food world. For thousands of years, it's been an important food source for indigenous communities in the southwest United States and Mexico, according to a 2019 article in the Journal of Hereditary. Some parts of the cactus are traditionally used for fabric dye or medicine, too. But for now, a closer look at the cactus benefits, plus ways to eat the plant at home.
What Is a Cactus?
While there are many varieties of cactus, the most common variety used as food in the U.S and Mexico is prickly pear cactus, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This type of cactus features flat, oval-shaped leaves known as pads or, in Spanish, nopales, which are eaten as vegetables in Mexican and Central American cuisine, according to the University of Central Florida. But these aren't the only edible portion of the prickly pear cactus. The plant also produces a deep pink-red fruit known as prickly pear or cactus pear that grows off of the leaves. For the sake of simplicity, though, this article will focus on cactus — as in, the green, oval pads known as nopales.
Cactus Nutrition Facts
When it comes to hydrating foods, look no further than cactus leaves, which are made almost entirely (about 91-95 percent) of water, according to a 2021 article published in Molecules. They also contain fiber, omega-3 fatty acids (aka "good" fats), and even a bit of protein. In terms of vitamins and minerals, cacti offer a plethora of nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron.
Here are the nutrition benefits for one cup (~86 grams) of sliced raw nopales or pads, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
- 14 calories
- 1 gram protein
- < 1 gram fat
- 3 grams carbohydrate
- 2 grams fiber
- < 1 gram sugar
Health Benefits of Cactus
Staves Off Disease
Want to up your intake of antioxidants? Reach for cactus pads, which are packed with free-radical busting antioxidants, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, according to registered dietitian Breanna Woods, M.S., R.D.N. They also offer vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant, says Valerie Agyeman, R.D., women's health dietitian and host of the Flourish Heights podcast. Antioxidants are pretty badass because they target and remove free radicals, which are harmful compounds that, in excess, cause oxidative stress — a situation that increases the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Promotes Healthy Digestion
Cactus pads contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, says Agyeman. This is stellar news for your gut, as both types of fiber are required for healthy digestion. Here's why: Soluble fiber forms into a gel in the gastrointestinal tract, firming up your stool and, in turn, potentially easing diarrhea. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, increases stool bulk and promotes healthy GI muscle movements, which may help curb constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic. These digestive benefits of cactus were observed in a 2020 human study, in which cactus fiber supplements improved symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome amongst participants.
A quick head's up, though: If you're not used to a high-fiber diet, the fiber content of cactus pads might cause some GI issues (think: mild diarrhea, bloating, nausea), says Woods. As such, consider consuming cactus in small amounts to "let your body adjust," says Rios.
Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
The fiber in cactus pads may help reduce blood sugar levels, according to the aforementioned 2021 scientific article. This is notable because high blood sugar levels (which can be caused by high-sugar diets and lack of exercise increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Basically, the fiber works by slowing down the absorption of glucose (sugar), thus preventing rapid spikes in the blood glucose (which could lead to type 2 diabetes if they occur too often).
That being said, if you have diabetes, you'll want to consume cactus with caution due to its blood sugar-lowering effects, advises Agyeman. Eating cactus while taking antidiabetic meds (which also lower blood glucose) may result in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), she says. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include irregular heartbeat, fatigue, anxiety, and sweating. To be safe, "consult your doctor before adding cactus to your routine," notes Agyeman.
Supports Heart Health
The soluble fiber in cactus pads helps the heart in several ways. For starters, "soluble fiber binds to cholesterol particles in the small intestine, preventing [them] from entering your bloodstream," explains Anna Rios, R.D.N, registered dietitian and founder of Healthy Simply Yum. The fiber is then excreted in your stool, bringing the cholesterol along with it and, in turn, helping to prevent high blood cholesterol levels, a major risk factor for heart disease. Cactus pads also contain carotenoids, which are antioxidants that, as you (hopefully!) know by now, combat oxidative stress. And because of this, they — and, in turn, nopales — can help stave off heart disease, as long-term oxidative stress increases the risk of the condition, according to a 2019 article.
ICYMI above, cactus pads are an excellent source of H2O. But beyond their actual water content, cactus pads also contain nutrients involved in hydration, such as potassium and magnesium. Both minerals are electrolytes, meaning they help you stay hydrated by moving fluid in (and out) of your cells. Staying hydrated is super important, as your body needs fluids for basic functions such as removing waste (via urine and sweating) and controlling body temperature. (Related: How Much Water Do You Actually Need to Drink Per Day?)
How to Buy and Cook with Cactus
Although peak season is mid-spring, you can generally find prickly pear cactus year-round in Mexican grocery stores or specialty supermarkets, particularly in the southwest United States, says Traci Weintraub, Cuban-American chef and founder of Gracefully Fed, a Los Angeles-based meal delivery service. (The southwest, after all, is primarily made of desert land, where cactus grows.) But if you have a hard time finding fresh cactus, no worries: Cactus is also sold in pickled forms in cans or jars. However, these versions may have added salt or sugar, so you'll want to check the label before buying should you want to limit these ingredients. (Related: These Spicy Cactus Snacks Are Guaranteed to Satisfy Your Crunchy Cravings)
You can also buy cactus water, which is traditionally made by "squeezing the juice from" the prickly pear fruit rather than cactus pads, according to Weintraub. For the healthiest choice, pick a beverage with minimal or zero added sugars, sodium, or preservatives. And while cactus fruit, like the pads, contains fiber, cactus water doesn't have any pulp, which is where the fiber is found. So, if you want to reap the digestive benefits of cactus, you'll want to eat the fruit or pads en-full instead.
If you're lucky enough to find fresh cactus pads, choose firm, bright green pads to ensure freshness, according to the University of Arizona. Most retailers remove the spines, or tiny spikes, beforehand, but if not, you'll want to handle the pads with care. Store them at home in the refrigerator for about a week. When you're ready to use the cactus, wear thick gloves and rinse them with water. Use one hand to hold the pad in place, then use the other hand to run a blunt knife across its surface to remove the spines. You should also remove the "eyes," or the bumps at the base of the spines, with the tip of the knife. Finally, peel the pad with a vegetable peeler. From there, you can slice or dice 'em, depending on your recipe. Cut cactus pads are known as "nopalitos" in Spanish, which can be eaten raw or cooked, according to New Mexico State University.
Now, let's talk about taste and texture: "Raw and cooked pads generally taste quite similar. The [flavor] is very mild, similar to that of asparagus but slightly more tart." In terms of texture, "raw cactus is very crisp but has a gelatinous coating, similar to okra," says Weintraub. "When cooked, cactus pads can be crunchy [or] soft," depending on how they're prepared.
On that note, you might be wondering how to cook nopales. Well, it can be grilled, boiled, or fried. You can eat them as would any other vegetable — e.g. in fresh salads, cooked dishes, and more. Need some inspo? Check out these delicious cactus recipes, below:
In tacos. Grilling cactus is one of the easiest ways to cook it, according to Weintraub. Simply peel the pad, season with salt and pepper, and grill it over medium heat for a couple of minutes on each side. Once the pad is charred and somewhat soft, slice it up and serve in tacos with your go-to fillings. (See also: The Crispy Tofu Taco Recipe You'll Want to Make On Repeat)
In salads. Both raw and cooked cactus work great in salads. Try this recipe for Mexican cactus salad, or ensalada de nopales, from The Bossy Kitchen. Enjoy it on its own or with eggs or grilled protein of your choice.
With scrambled eggs. Boring breakfasts, no more! Take a tip from the University of Arizona and add cactus to your morning eggs. Simply warm oil in a pan over medium heat, then cook the sliced cactus as you would any other veggie. When the cactus develops a tender texture and olive-green hue — after about 15 minutes — add the eggs and cook as usual.