Nopal – Properties, benefits and contraindications

The nopal is one of the foods that has become better known in recent years. One of the properties of nopal is that it is low in carbohydrates and calories, which is considered helpful in losing weight.

Studies have shown that nopales have a high content of molecules with antioxidant and anti glycemic properties. So eating them raw is associated with benefits for people with diabetes.

This article analyzes the properties, benefits, and contraindications of the cactus backed by science. What are the different ways to cook its pulp?

What is the nopal?

The nopal ( Opuntia ficus-indica ), also known as nopal cactus or nopalitos, is an edible plant of Mexican origin. The pulp of the cactus can be eaten when the plant is small; when it grows, it becomes hard and dry.

Nopales can be eaten raw in salads; their texture and flavor are similar to green peppers.

Due to its properties and benefits in nutrition, more and more people want to know how to cook this plant. As in medicine, more and more research is being done on making extracts for medicinal purposes.

Nutritional properties of nopal

The nopal is a low calorie food. 100 g of its pulp provides only 16 Kcal. It is also rich in vitamin C, calcium, and vegetable fiber.

Another property of this food is that it is high in pectins, a nutrient with potential benefits for people with diabetes.

As if that were not enough, raw nopal contains a high content of flavonoids: kaempferol and quercetin. Flavonoids are plant compounds that provide essential benefits. This is because they have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The nutritional properties of the nopal in 100 g are (1):

Water 94 g
Calories 16 kcal
Protein 1.3 g
Total fat 0.1 g
Total carbohydrates 3.3 g
Total fiber 2.2 g
Total sugars 1.2 g
Football 164 mg
Iron 0.6 mg
Magnesium 52 mg
Match 16 mg
Potassium 257 mg
Sodium 21 mg
Zinc 0.3 mg
Copper 0.05 mg
Manganese 0.5 mg
C vitamin 9 mg
Vitamin B1 0.01 mg
Vitamin B6 0.04 mg
Niacin 0.4 mg
Vitamin A 23 µg
Vitamin K 5 µg

Nutritional information of raw nopal – 100 g. Source (1)

Nopal health benefits

The benefits of nopal can be obtained in different ways. The simplest way is to eat the pulp raw. However, you can also take supplements in capsules, powders, extracts, and even in the form of shakes.

More studies are needed to determine the safe dosages of supplements made from this cactus. However, most packages recommend taking 500-650 milligrams daily. The benefits of nopal for health are:

  1. Regulate blood sugar levels

One of the benefits of nopal is to regulate blood sugar levels. This food can help in the fight for people with diabetes. The nopal can be a natural treatment complementary to traditional treatments. Some research indicates that the nopal can lower and regulate blood sugar in people with diabetes by up to 10% and can be used to supplement medications. (5.6)

  1. Antiviral properties

Prevention is the best defense to prevent virus infections. The nopal is a plant with antiviral properties. Some research has found it to have antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus (HSV), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and HIV. (2)

  1. Protector of nerve cells

One of the cactus properties is that it can protect nerve cells. (4) These can be damaged under the oxidative effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Regular consumption of nopal extracts is an effective method to counteract the consequences of this hormone.

  1. Anti-cancer properties

The nopal cactus is high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are found in raw pulp and can protect cells from free radical damage. Antioxidants benefit everyone, regardless of age, gender, diabetes, or other health conditions.

  1. It can reduce bad cholesterol

Studies suggest that one of the benefits of nopal is to lower cholesterol. (7,8) In animal research, adding just 1% nopal to the diet could lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and improve triglyceride levels. Prickly pear cactus can lower cholesterol with far fewer side effects than traditional cholesterol medications.

  1. Help with hangover symptoms.

One of the benefits of nopal is helping with hangover symptoms. (9) However, it is essential to know that to minimize the effects of alcohol, you should not eat raw nopal the next day. The cactus extract should be taken before drinking alcohol to obtain this benefit.

Is it suitable for diabetics?

The nopal is one of the plants most used as a natural treatment for diabetics. Its effects in lowering blood sugar levels have been proven by science. (3,4,5,6) These are attributed to their high content of soluble fiber and pectins.

Pectin is a complex polysaccharide found in the nopal cell wall. This polysaccharide constitutes the majority component of its carbohydrates. There is an association between a diet high in leptin and better results in glucose levels in people with diabetes.

Specifically, it has been proven that the consumption of its roasted stems causes an improvement in hyperglycemia in diabetics. (4)

Nopal extracts improve the absorption of glucose at the intestinal level (3,4), for which it is considered that one of its benefits is its hypoglycemic effect.

Animal studies report that extracts from this plant can reduce postprandial glucose levels and improve the body’s insulin reaction.

In conclusion, the consumption of nopal pulp and extract is suitable for people with diabetes.

Side effects and contraindications of nopal

The nopal is considered a safe food. However, an excess in its quantity, particularly in supplements, can have side effects. Possible side effects of nopal supplements are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Sickness
  • Inflammation

There are still no studies that affirm that the nopal and derived supplements are suitable for pregnant or lactating women. So this is considered to be one of its contraindications.

People with diabetes who take medication should always consult their doctor before taking nopal extracts.

Nopal juices with added sugar or other fruit juices are not recommended for people with diabetes. These can be foods capable of uncontrolling insulin levels and will not bring additional benefits. If possible, always choose to eat the pulp fresh.

How to cook nopal?

Nopal pulp is a versatile ingredient. It can be eaten raw as long as it is peeled correctly: the thorns and the thick skin covering the pulp must be removed. All prickly pears have seeds that must be removed when cooking or spitting.

Before cooking the nopal, it must be rinsed with water to remove the viscous liquid that covers the surface of the pulp. An easy recipe with nopal is to sauté it into cubes with coconut oil, red onion peppers, and cherry tomatoes to make a delicious salad.

Another way to eat nopal is in the form of detox shakes. Combining them with other green foods is a way to improve liver function and prevent associated diseases such as fatty liver. Here is a recipe to prepare vegan nopal tacos:

Ingredients

  • One tablespoon of coconut oil
  • 2 cups of nopal pulp chopped and sautéed
  • ¼ cup onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 Cup of tomato (commun or cherry) chopped
  • 2 sprigs of coriander
  • Corn tortillas
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation

  • Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat for 1 minute.
  • Add the onion and sauté until it acquires a translucent color.
  • Add the peppers and the garlic clove and cook for a minute.
  • Add the diced tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes, separating the pulp from the skin with a spatula.
  • Add the nopales and the coriander sprigs and cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Spice with salt and pepper. Optional: avocado and teriyaki sauce.

ABSTRACT

The nopal is an edible cactus of Mexican origin.

The consumption of its pulp and extracts has potential properties and health benefits.

One of its nutritional properties is its high content of pectins, a compound capable of regulating blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Cooking nopal is simple; one of the easiest recipes is vegan tacos.

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