According to the American Heart Association, once you get past the dangerous-looking spines, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus has some amazing health benefits, including lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Beneath those intimidating spines, which are there to discourage predators, are flower blossoms that yield an oval fruit that packs a nutritional punch, including vitamin C, minerals, and fiber.
“Prickly pears are considered to have many health benefits,” said Hope Wilson, a dietitian and nutritionist with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. “They’re low in sodium, low in fat, and have zero cholesterol” – all of which can contribute to heart disease.
The prickly pear cactus – part of the Opuntia genus– has been prized as food and medicine by Indigenous people in the Southwestern US and Latin America. It’s commonly known in Spanish as nopal or cacto. North of the border, Texas adopted the cactus as its official state plant in 1995, and Arizona, New Mexico, and California have showcased its attributes in festivals.
Although the drought-tolerant plant is native to the Americas, particularly in desert areas, different varieties grow throughout the world, including Australia. “I got a phone call from someone doing a documentary in Kenya, and they said, ‘We found a prickly pear,'” Wilson said.
She touts the benefits of the prickly pear through her outreach work on food safety and nutrition in central Arizona. While talking about preparing different foods, she has observed that more people seem to be familiar with the fruit – tuna in Spanish – than the pads of the cactus, which are also edible and high in nutritional value, she said.
Wilson compared the taste of the fruit to that of watermelon. It’s often turned into jams, jellies, and even cocktails. The fruit’s hairlike prickles, called glochids, should be peeled and the flesh scooped out. “But it’s not as common for people, especially those who are coming from outside the desert,” to consider eating the pads.
If wrestling with spines doesn’t appeal to you, Wilson suggests checking grocery stores for ready-to-eat tunas and nopales – fresh or canned – but check labels for added sugars or high levels of sodium.
The prickly pear is popular in jelly form, she said, but use it sparingly on desserts, snacks, or sandwiches because of the fruit’s high sugar content, which helps with preservation and its gel-like texture. “If making prickly pear juice at home, remember to dilute the juice with water because drinking a lot of prickly pear juice all at once can cause stomach discomfort and possible nausea,” she said.
And if you’re ready to meet the prickly pear head-on, equip yourself with a good pair of tongs. It may be the best way to avoid a prickly encounter – just ask Wilson.
She once tried to get a close-up picture of a colorful tuna and promptly felt the defensive sting of the prickly pear in her bare hand. “Just be safe and wear heavy gloves,” she said.