Cactus is a plant with many more benefits than just being a delicious backdrop for Instagram selfies, so you don’t have to visit the desert to enjoy its effects. Companies around the country are incorporating these interesting superfoods – which are water-efficient since they grow in drought-resistant soil – into healthy snacks and beverages. Despite its recent popularity among Americans, however, using a humble cactus in the kitchen dates back centuries.
Mexico’s nopales have been around since the Aztecs, and they’re a staple crop you’ll find in every market, supermarket, and even in backyards,” says Regina Trillo, a Chicago-based attorney turned snack entrepreneur from Mexico City. She adds nopales-the common name for paddles of the prickly pear cactus-are also widely incorporated into Mexican beauty products and used for medicinal purposes.
Fruit and juice of the cactus provide health benefits
Despite its appearance (those sharp prickles aren’t appealing), cactus has countless health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties and powerful antioxidants.
“Calavera cactus is particularly high in antioxidants, including vitamin C, which helps keep your immune system functioning properly as well as prevent inflammation,” says RD Maggie Michalczyk.
There are about 14 calories in one cup of raw cactus, 1 gram of protein, and 2 grams of fiber. Leaf, flower, stem, and fruit are all edible parts of the plant. The most popular way to prepare it in Mexico is to grill it whole, stuff it with delicious ingredients, and make tlacoyos.
How to eat cactus fruit
When it comes to eating cactus in its entirety, many restaurants, especially in the Southwest, prepare it in a variety of tasty ways. For example, in Tucson, Arizona, Zio Peppe serves a Prickly Pickle pizza topped with nopales and cholla buds (asparagus-like blossoms from the cholla cactus), and Charro Vida serves a cactus bowl topped with red chile sauce, hemp seeds, and spiced pepitas.
Unfortunately, unless you live near a desert, finding raw cactus to prepare at home might be difficult. Trillo, who now lives in Chicago, was pleased to see nopales in an American grocery store for the first time, but was disappointed that they were still covered in spikes. “I understood that if people didn’t know how to clean or cook an intimidating-looking vegetable, they wouldn’t buy it,” she explains.
That’s what prompted her to transform a popular food from her native country into a healthy snack. She made her first cactus nibbles, which became Nemi cactus sticks, a few years ago. Nopales paddles that have been dehydrated and ground into powder, as well as amaranth seeds and spices, are used to make these nutrient-dense, gluten-free vegan snacks.
Nemi uses whole nopales, which have a flavour similar to a green bean or asparagus on their own and contain all of the gut-friendly fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants found in raw cactus. The snack offers 4 grammes of dietary fibre and 6 grammes of protein per serving (about 30 pieces).
Mariana Dineen, RD, a Chicago-based nutritionist, adds, “Nemi [cactus sticks] are a staple in my cupboard.” She also loves this desert plant because it’s high in fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E, and polyphenols, which offer it anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and blood sugar-stabilizing characteristics, according to her.
Cactus is used in a variety of ways by other brands. Hector Saldivar, a Mexican native, established Tia Lupita, which was one of the first American businesses to use cactus as a functional ingredient in tortillas and tortilla chips. In recipes like tacos and enchiladas, the tortillas (which have a green colour) are a great substitute for traditional wheat or corn tortillas. “There are 50 million Hispanics in the United States who are familiar with nopal since it is a part of their culture,” adds Saldivar. “We enjoy sharing our food and culture with others… and the American consumer palate is changing as globally inspired foods gain popularity.”
Cactus water has health benefits
Cactus water is another product made by Pricklee, a company founded by five pharmacists that has half the amount of sugar as coconut water. Vanessa Hudgens founded Caliwater, which contains 200 grams of nopal extract per can and is another antioxidant-rich cactus water. The cactus water isn’t as good as cactus for fiber, but it still provides some antioxidant properties and minerals such as magnesium and potassium, according to Michalczyk.
According to Dineen, cactus has the most benefits when eaten in its whole form, such as grilled or added to a cactus salad. Adding these snacks to your diet is a good start if you are not ready to tackle these lesser-known foods, she adds. “Cactus water also has the advantage of keeping you hydrated, as its flavor is different from plain water.” Research has also suggested its anti-inflammatory properties may help prevent hangover symptoms. Drink cactus water while you’re sipping your summer margaritas,” Dineen suggests.
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