Seeds of Wisdom Wednesday - Nopal Cactus

After the Gardener Gathering event on Saturday, nopal cactus is on our minds. We harvested some paddles off the nopal cactus in the Village Circle Community Garden to cook up and put in the tacos. It was some folks first time trying this amazing, healthful vegetable. Nopal, also known as Nopales or Prickly Pear Cactus, originated in Mexico and Central America. Thriving in warm, dry regions, they have since spread to many parts of the southwest United States, as well as South America, the Mediterranean region and Australia. The name “nopal” came from the language of the Nahuatl people, the indigenous people of Central Mexico. It was found that historically, after removing thorns from a paddle it would be heated and put on the chest to relieve congestion. Farmers also created a bright, waterproof paint from the nopals that they used to mark property lines and borders. This cactus remains an important symbol in Mexican culture and a vital staple in their traditional cuisine. They are often canned or pickled and exported to the U.S. from Mexico. They’re also commonly used in jellies and jams. Nopals have been compared to a combination of a green pepper, green bean, and watermelon, but you’ll have to try them yourself!

You’ll harvest the young cactus pads, because the older pads of the cactus are too hard for eating. The red fruit can also be harvested for eating, but before cooking or preparing your nopal you need to remove the thorns. Afterwards, being quite versatile, nopals are great to eat raw in a salad or salsa, juiced, grilled, boiled, sautéed, in soups, egg scrambles and stir frys, etc.
Nopal cactus is an exciting and no brainer food to include in your diet. It’s a low calorie, nutrient dense and very hydrating food. On top of that, it contains a plethora of nourishing properties. These cactus leaves or pads contain phytochemicals – flavonoids and phenolics to be more specific – that offer many antioxidant benefits. They’re also a valuable source of calcium, carotenoids, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, potassium and vitamins A, E and C. You might not expect it but they’re also a great source of protein and amino acids, containing 17 different types. The magnesium in nopal can help calm the body by stimulating serotonin production, helping promote better sleep and reduce anxiety. Traditionally nopal has also been used to treat gastric ulcers and it has since been proven that they do in fact prevent these ulcers from developing.
Once again, like the other produce we’ve talked about so far, nopal is very high in fiber which aids digestion, balances blood sugar, makes you feel full and supports a body’s healthy weight. More fiber in your diet also hinders release of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. Nopal also contains plenty of riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6 which all contribute to proper enzyme activity and metabolic function.
A unique benefit of nopal is the large amount of betalain they contain, which is an antioxidant that is only found in a handful of fruits and vegetables and can be a powerful topical and internal anti-inflammatory. Betalain is what contributes to the eye-catching red hue of the fruit on nopal cactus, or beets and swiss chard. Nopal also contains a long list of vitamins and nutrients that are vital to skin health. Vitamin A promotes skin moisture, collagen production and cell renewal, all contributing to anti-aging efforts. Vitamin C also plays a role in those benefits, as well as aiding in skin elasticity and brightness. Vitamin K offers the added benefit of preventing scarring. The riboflavin and polysaccharides in nopal helps with tissue repair and moisture retention. You can experiment with making your own cleanser and toner with nopal, as it was traditionally applied topically to help treat acne, burns, insect bite, cuts and bruises.

To once again praise the nopal’s anti-inflammatory powers – research claims that they can be immensely effective in fighting memory deterioration, promoting psychological health and protecting brain cells. Certain antioxidants that nopal contains, like quercetin and quercetin 3-methyl ether, help prevent free radical formation in the brain. A study done in 2009 also suggested that the phytochemicals in the cactus’ leaves could fight off cancer cell growth. In addition to delivering more antioxidants to our body, nopals have also been shown to be valuable in fighting oxidative stress and the resulting cell damage that involves.

A few studies have shown that extract from this cactus that is ingested a few hours before drinking could decrease the symptoms of a hangover. This is thought to be due to the powerful antioxidants that are helping to reduce the body’s inflammation.
Being rich in fiber and pectin, nopal has been found to help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Along with that, nopal can help those with diabetes by lowering their blood sugar and insulin levels thanks to all that fiber and pectin, which reduces the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestines. While there is a lot of evidence of the benefits nopal can provide for someone with diabetes, it is also important to note that some studies have resulted in diabetes patients developing hypoglycemia when nopal was included in their diet in addition to taking diabetes drugs already prescribed.
I’m sure you’ve noticed all the nopal growing around this area, especially in some of the community gardens. If you haven’t been growing it yourself already, maybe now you’ll be motivated to give it a try. If you’re ready to try cooking nopal but need some inspiration, consider purchasing our cookbook, Sharing the Bounty, for some great recipes that include this amazing cactus crop!

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  1. Medical Daily - The Prickly Superfood: 6 Health Benefits of Eating Cactus That You Didn't Know by Lizette Borreli
  2. Amstar - 7 Convincing Reasons to Eat Nopales
  3. Puristry - The Amazing Benefits of Nopal Cactus
  4. Verywell Fit - Health Benefits of Nopal (Prickly Pear Cactus) by Cathy Wong
  5. Organic facts - 11 Impressive Benefits of Nopales by John Staughton
  6. Natural Food Series - 11 Amazing Benefits of Nopales by Brandi Marcene

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