Prickly pear cactus is a plant. It is part of the diet in Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. Only the young plant is eaten; older plants are too tough. Prickly pear cactus is also used for medicine. Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections. In foods, the prickly pear juice is used in jellies and candies. Most research on this product has been performed in Mexico by one research group. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.
This plant has been employed both as a medicine ands a source of nourishment, since prehistoric times, and was traded by various ethnic groups in Mexico and other parts of tropical America, long before the arrival of the Europeans. The sliced or diced tender young pads or “paddles” (cladodes) of some species of the genus Opuntia are commonly known as “nopalitos” (meaning “little nopales”), which have been a traditional vegetable in the Mexican diet for centuries, and more recently, a specialty vegetable in the United States. Usually, prickly pear cactus is consumed as a fresh or cooked green vegetable. The cactus pads, or stems, are sliced, diced and cooked (boiled or broiled) much like string beans, and consumed as a salad or as part of a meal.
Prickly pear cactus has been a staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. In parts of the U.S. it has been gaining popularity as an exotic, gourmet and healthy addition to one’s diet. The prickly pear plant has two different edible sections: the pad of the cactus (nopal), which can be treated like a vegetable, and the pear (tuna), which can be treated like a fruit. They grow wild throughout the American southwest, down to South America and up to Canada. The ones you may find at a local store or farmers market will surely originate from a commercial nopal farm.