Health benefits of Fig Opuntia fruit (prickly pear)
What is fig opuntia, and where can we find it?
Fig opuntia, Opuntia Ficus-Indica or prickly pear plant, belongs to the cactus family. It can grow up to 5-7 metres. It is native to the “Americas” (North/South); however, since it has been domesticated, we can find it in many areas of the world (even in Europe). The prickly pear fruit (also called “tuna”) grows on the leaves of the cactus. It comes in several colours, from yellow to red, purple and green. When ripe, the fruit has a deep, firm red outer skin with very sharp spines on the outside, and the inner flesh has tiny black seeds.
Can you eat prickly pear?
Yes, this delicious and nutrient-rich fruit’s inner flesh is edible. Other edible parts of the prickly pear plant apart from the fruit are the pad/nopal and the flower. Apparently, prickly pear fruit tastes similar to a mixture of watermelon, strawberries, and raspberries. Sounds divine! However, make sure you wear thick gloves when picking and preparing them. The outside of this delicious fruit is covered with fine hair-like splinters. But don’t let this put you off! Once you peel the skin off, you have the juicy inner part. You can eat it raw, cooked, or as a drink in the form of a refreshing juice. They are great for sweet (fruit) and savoury recipes (mainly the nopal). Jellies and jams are often made from
the fruit too. The extract of prickly pear is widely available in capsule/tablet and powder form. “Your secret is” stocks it in their online store, called Water balance. This product also contains other unique ingredients such as dandelion root, nettle leaf and parsley root extract.
If you try prickly pear cactus for the first time, introduce it slowly. It can cause side effects for some people, such as mild diarrhoea, nausea, abdominal fullness, bloating, and increased stool frequency/volume due to excess fibre consumption. There is not enough data on prickly pear supplements regarding pregnancy or breastfeeding. To stay on the safe side, consume it only in its food state. (1)
What is the nutritional content of this fruit?
I am not surprised looking at its nutritional value; why this fruit is often referred to as a superfood. It contains a great source of vitamins and minerals such as:
- vitamin C
- vitamin A (higher in the yellow fruit)
- B vitamins (B2, B3, B6, folate)
Also rich in amino acids, fatty acids, antioxidants and is high in fibre. (2)
Health benefits of prickly pear
Over the years, prickly pear and its health benefits have received much attention. In Mexican folk remedy, prickly pear fruit (also the pads and flowers) has a great medicinal value and has been traditionally used for various health issues. It is believed to help with elevated blood sugar, water retention, inflammatory conditions, high cholesterol and to improve gut health.
Let`s see what the science says
1. It may have a positive effect on heart health
Minerals like potassium, magnesium and calcium are essential for maintaining healthy blood pressure; they can relax the blood vessels, and the antioxidants found in prickly pear may strengthen the endothelial walls of blood vessels. A diet rich in these minerals may reduce the risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke. (3)
2. It has anti-inflammatory properties
Prickly pear is packed with antioxidants (flavonoids, phenolic acids and pigments-carotenoids, betalains). They are natural molecules/compounds that help us neutralise free radicals (unstable compounds), preventing chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, we are exposed to these harmful compounds via air, water, food and natural biochemical processes. Our bodies can cope with a small amount of these unstable compounds. However, over time, an overload of these free radicals can have a massive impact on our health. Diets low in antioxidants can predispose us to heart disease, diabetes and inflammation. (4)
A randomised crossover double-treatment study has found that eating prickly pear or supplementing with its extract can improve antioxidant status and decrease inflammation. (5)
3. It may help to reduce elevated blood sugar and high cholesterol
A pilot study shows that prickly pear has a promising approach to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. The fruit has a high pectin content. What is pectin? Pectin is a soluble fibre and has been associated with helping lower glucose and lipid in the blood as it slows down the carbohydrate absorption from the gut. (6)
4. It could be helpful for hangovers
Good news for those who like a boozy night out but are not keen on the effects of alcohol the next day. Researchers found that eating prickly pear cactus a couple of hours before drinking alcohol moderately reduced the usual symptoms of hangovers. (nausea, dry mouth, loss of appetite.) (7)
Although it is not a cure for hangovers, the prickly pear’s antioxidant content may help cope with the excess alcohol.
Great, isn’t it? I hear you asking, “where can I buy prickly pear in the United Kingdom?” Luckily there are some online shops where you can buy fresh fruit.
5. May aid water retention and weigh loss
Research confirms the diuretic effect of prickly pear extract. In a clinical study, 15 women with water retention problems were taking cacti nea (ingredients derived from prickly pear fruit) for a week they noticed a significant decrease in the sensation of swollen ankles and legs.
Another study demonstrated the positive effect of prickly pear fruit on weight control and even weight loss. Prickly pear fruit is rich in fibre. The good news about fibre is that it will make you feel full for longer, therefore less snacking and less hunger. We also learned from the study that the fibre in the fruit binds to dietary fat. Once it is bound to fibre, instead of absorbing it, the body excretes it. Sounds fantastic! Time to stock up with some fresh fruit! If you are looking for a supplement, try Water Balance Here. (8) (9)
6. It can positively affect your digestive system
The high fibre (soluble and insoluble) content in prickly pear gives you regularity when it comes to your bathroom habits. Regular bowel movements help you to get rid of toxins from your gut. Getting rid of toxic substances is very important. The longer these toxins stay in your gut, the longer they have time to reabsorb (including excess hormones). So yes, regularity is a key, and prickly pear can do the job. Also, the high amount of magnesium in prickly pear can help digestion. Magnesium is an essential cofactor in activating about 300 digestive enzymes, which all have an important role in breaking down carbohydrates, protein and fats. If you don’t have enough enzymes to break down these macronutrients, that can lead to digestive issues. (10)
Including prickly pear (in any form) in your well-balanced diet can benefit your health!
Bee healthy and happy! 😊
DipCNM, mBANT, rCNHC
(1) WebMD Prickly pear cactus – uses, side effects and more
(2) Nutrition data – Prickly pears, raw nutrition and calories
(3) Mark C Huston, Karen J Harper, 2008 Potassium, magnesium, and calcium: their role in both the cause and treatment of hypertension PMID: 18607145 PMCID: PMC8109864 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-7176.2008.08575.x
(4) Nemat Khansari , Yadollah Shakiba, Mahdi Mahmoudi , 2009 Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress as a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer PMID: 19149749 DOI: 10.2174/187221309787158371
(5) Luisa Tesoriere , Daniela Butera, Anna Maria Pintaudi, Mario Allegra, Maria A Livrea 2004 Supplementation with cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) fruit decreases oxidative stress in healthy humans: a comparative study with vitamin C PMID: 15277160 DOI: 10.1093/acne/80.2.391
(6) Roswitha M Wolfram , Harald Kritz, Yannis Efthimiou, Jorgos Stomatopoulos, Helmut Sinzinger Department of Angiology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.2002 Prickly Pear Cacti (Opuntia spp.) Cladodes as a Functional Ingredient for Hyperglycemia Management: A Brief Narrative Review PMID: 12503475 DOI: 114(19-20):840-6.
(7) Jeff Wiese , Steve McPherson, Michelle C Odden, Michael G Shlipak, 2004 General Internal Medicine Section and Department of Medicine, Tulane Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, LA, USA. Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on symptoms of the alcohol hangover PMID: 15226168 DOI: 10.1001/archinte.164.12.1334
(8) Ralf Uebelhack, MD, PhD,Regina Busch, Felix Alt, Zhi-Ming Beah, and Pee-Win Chong Effects of Cactus Fiber on the Excretion of Dietary Fat in Healthy Subjects: A Double Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Clinical Investigation, 2014 PMCID: PMC4109417 PMID: 25067985 DOI: 10.1016/j.curtheres.2014.02.001
(9) BRAM, FranceBio Serae “the diuretic effects of Cacti-Nea, a natural extract of Opuntia ficus indica (prickly pear fruit).”
(10) NIH National Institutes of Health Office of dietary supplements Magnesium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals