Prickly pear Cactus is edible……
Up until recently I thought all types of cactus plants were very poisonous let alone edible. I actually tried not to come in contact with any as I thought I could be affected in some way. Many people plant cactus as a hedge or as a decorative plant in their yards and gardens.
About two years ago I joined a Facebook group called healing naturally together that was founded by a highly trained nutritionist called Christine. She is a very passionate advocate and teacher of healthy living and the use of our God given natural foods and plants to maintain good health and receive healing in case of sickness or disease. There are very many people who through her guidance and teaching (on her group page or through consultation), have been healed or have improved on their quality of life. I have read people’s testimonies on getting relief from diabetes, fertility issues, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and obesity.
So one day, Christine posted a picture of a prickly pear cactus salad she had made for dinner, then other people also started posting about their experience and benefits they were seeing from consuming cactus and I was tempted to try but no one warned me that cactus is very slimy and the fact that it is green does not help. I was literally gagging and could not even swallow so that was a waste. More people complained about how they couldn’t handle the sliminess of cactus and had therefore given up on it. Others suggested to just gulp but how…. again I say it is very thick and slimy. Then someone suggested adding in lemon and pineapple but still the taste was not nice for me then I tried it with mango, a small piece of ginger root and fruit juice (in this case it was passion fruit juice) and yippee…. I had a winning cactus combo that the kids and I could enjoy without forcing it down.
So what is prickly pear cactus?
The prickly pear cactus is also known as Opuntia, nopales, nopal, or paddle cactus. Cactus is native to the Americas. It is my neighbour who actually allayed my fears about cactus and actually confirmed that I could eat it told me that she first discovered that cactus was edible while she was on a study trip to Mexico and that cactus was a normal food for the Mexicans.
In its natural state the cactus has sharp thorns, and you must wear gloves to remove them, though cactus also adapts to the different geographic and climatic conditions in which it grows because the one I have planted in my backyard have very tiny hair like thorns whereas I have seen some as hedges with very sharp long thorns.
Benefits of prickly pear cactus
You will find many reports promoting nopal/ cactus as a super food or nutritional powerhouse for treating type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and hangovers but there has not been any in depth scientific research to back it up. This does not mean that the people who promote the benefits are liars or that it cannot be consumed as part of a healthy diet, it just means that in case you are suffering from an ailment you should seek medical assistance from a professional practitioner.
Despite the limited research on the health benefits of cactus, some preliminary evidence and research shows that prickly pear cactus
- Can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes
- Lessens the unpleasant effects of a hangover
- It is high in fibre, antioxidants and carotenoids
- Cactus juice is an excellent source of vitamin C, B-family vitamins, iron, calcium, beta-carotene, magnesium, numerous amino acids and other phyto-nutrients. It is also extremely low in calories, although it is quite high in omega-6 fatty acids.
- Improves digestion and relieves constipation. Cactus juice is recommended for intestinal problems, as it can form a protective layer in the gut that lowers inflammation levels and soothes the discomfort of irritable bowel syndrome. It can also help clear up problems with constipation, bloating and cramping, as it clears out the colon and digestive tracts.
- And from personal experience, cactus eases menstrual cramps. Cactus juice / smoothie can act rapidly to eliminate all abdominal discomfort and tightness, and also relieve stress and anxiety that often accompanies a woman’s period. However I find this most effective when I start taking it about 5 days before the start of the period and it’s really helpful. All the cramping and general feeling of meh is not there.
How to consume cactus
Cactus is nutritious and its edible parts include the leaves / pads, the flowers the stems and the fruits. 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 i.e slimy / very slippery.
Much as you almost all parts of cactus are edible, I have only consumed the leaves / pads, I am yet to try the flower and fruit. You can consume cactus leaves in the following ways
- As a juice – using a juice extractor, clean the cactus and dethorn it then put chopped pieces in the juicer to extract the leaves.
- As an infused drink – Cut cactus in small pieces put in a jar of water overnight then drink the water the next day, I usually add in pineapple chunks to improve the taste and flavour then drink with a straw…. This makes the sliminess easier to deal with.
- As a smoothie – this is my favourite way to consume cactus. As already mentioned in my intro above, my favourite smoothie combo with cactus contains mango for sweetening and changing the texture, frozen or very cold passion fruit juice or water or ice cubes for improving the consistency (reducing the thickness) and ginger for extra flavour / zing and the benefits. I just put it all in a blender and get my yummy smoothie. I usually take smoothies for breakfast because of the fibre and nature of the ingredients and it leaves me feel full most of the morning and early afternoon. This helps with my weight loss / maintenance goals as well as keeping me healthy. I also tend to find that taking smoothies later in the day irritates my stomach and I end up with gas and acidity / discomfort.
4. As a salad, briefly steam / boil the cactus pad(s), chop it up and add to the rest of your vegetable salad mix.
5. As a powder for use as a drink / beverage. Cactus can be dried and ground in to a powder and then taken as a drink or added to other food recipes. If you searched on google you would find many ways to consume cactus powder. I personally find no need in buying the powder since I can easily access the pads from my neighbour’s garden and I have also grown some that are coming up beautifully, besides I live in a country with perfect weather- it is basically summer all year round and there is no need to preserve and store a resilient plant like cactus.
Negative effects of cactus
In case you are considering using cactus in your diet, I would recommend you slowly ease into it as some people have report mild diarrhoea, nausea, increased stool volume ,frequency and abdominal fullness. However, I must say that in my almost two years of taking cactus I have never experienced any of these side effects …. We all react differently and may be the type of cactus also matters.
Where to buy cactus and how to grow it.
You can find cactus from any fresh foods store or market but it may come at a high price. You can also buy ready to go cactus juice and related products but nothing beats growing your own cactus in your backyard. Cactus growing is very easy as all you have to do is place a mature pad in well-drained soil in a container or in the ground and then it forms roots in a few weeks then its starts growing pads. It is not high maintenance and can survive harsh conditions. You can then consume this knowing that it is organic and healthy, and I tend to enjoy what I have grown much more than what I buy at the market…..feels more rewarding.
So, basically that is it about the prickly pear cactus and its health benefits. Consider adding it to your diet and let me know how it goes.
Blessings and thanks for coming by.