You don’t have to make a trip to the desert to experience the benefits of cactus, a plant that goes much deeper than being a perfect background for Instagram selfies. Food companies around the U.S. are bringing this surprising superfood—which is also good for the environment, since it’s drought resistant and requires so little water to grow—into convenient healthy snacks and beverages. While it may be new to many Americans, however, using the humble cactus in the kitchen goes back many centuries.
“Nopales are a staple crop in Mexico dating back to the Aztecs, and you’ll find them in every market, grocery store, and even in backyards,” explains Regina Trillo, a Chicago-based attorney-turned-snack entrepreneur who grew up in Mexico City. “Mexicans eat them grilled, in tacos, salads, soups, pickled, as a dessert and as juice.” She adds that nopales—the common word for paddles of the prickly pear cactus—are also widely incorporated in Mexican beauty products and used for medicinal purposes.
Health benefits of cactus fruit and cactus juice
Though it looks like a plant you’d want to stay away from (all those sharp prickles aren't exactly inviting), cactus have myriad health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties and potent antioxidants.
“Cactus is high in antioxidants like vitamin C, which helps to protect against inflammation and free-radical damage as well as keep your immune system functioning properly,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD.
One cup of raw cactus contains about 14 calories, 1 gram of protein, and 2 grams of gut-friendly fiber. The edible parts of the plant are the leaves, flowers, stems, and fruit. In Mexico, it is often prepared whole, grilled, and stuffed into delicious dishes like tlacoyos.
How to eat cactus fruit
When it comes to consuming cactus in its whole form, many restaurants—particularly in the Southwestern U.S.—serve cactus in a number of flavorful ways. For instance, in Tucson, Arizona, Zio Peppe offers the Prickly Pickle pizza topped with nopales and cholla buds (flowers from the cholla cactus that taste like asparagus), while Charro Vida has a cactus bowl (dubbed a “Sonoran superfood”) topped with red chile sauce, hemp seeds, and spiced pepitas.
Unfortunately, unless you live near a desert, it can be hard to find raw cactus to prepare it at home. When Trillo, who now lives in Chicago, spotted nopales for the first time in an American grocery store, she was excited, but disappointed they were still covered in spikes. “I realized that people would not buy an intimidating-looking vegetable if they didn’t know how to clean it or cook it,” she explains.
That’s what inspired her to turn one of her home country’s favorites into a nutritious snack. A couple years ago, she baked her first cactus snacks, which became Nemi cactus sticks. These nutrient-dense, gluten-free vegan snacks are made with nopales paddles that have been dehydrated and ground into powder, as well as amaranth seeds and spices.
Because Nemi incorporates whole nopales (which taste similar to a green bean or asparagus on its own), they’re packed with all the gut-friendly fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants of raw cactus. One serving of the snack (about 30 pieces) contains 4 grams of dietary fiber and 6 grams of protein.
“Nemi [cactus sticks] are a staple in my pantry,” says Mariana Dineen, RD, a Chicago-based nutritionist. She adds that she loves this desert plant because it’s so rich in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E, and polyphenols, which give this beloved staple in Mexican cuisine anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and blood sugar-stabilizing properties.
Other brands are using cactus in unique ways. Tia Lupita, founded by Mexico native Hector Saldivar, was among the first American brands to introduce cactus as a functional ingredient in tortillas and tortilla chips. The tortillas (which have a green hue) are a fantastic substitute for your regular flour or corn tortillas in dishes like tacos and enchiladas. “There are 50 million Hispanics living in the U.S. who are familiar with nopal, as it has been part of the culture from which they are from,” says Saldivar. “We love sharing our foods and culture... and the U.S. consumer palate is evolving as globally inspired foods are growing [in popularity].”
Health benefits of cactus water
Another company called Pricklee, founded by five pharmacists, makes cactus water, which has half the sugar of coconut water. And Caliwater—cofounded by actress Vanessa Hudgens—is another brand of antioxidant-laden cactus water, containing 200 grams of nopal extract per can. While you’ll miss out on the fiber benefit of cactus when drinking cactus water, you’ll still get some antioxidant properties as well as minerals like magnesium and potassium by drinking it, says Michalczyk.
Like so many other superfoods, consuming cactus in its whole form, such as grilled or added to a cactus salad, will give you the most benefits, says Dineen. “But if you’re not ready to venture into these lesser-known foods, including these snacks in your diet is a great start," she adds. "Drinking cactus water can also help you stay hydrated, as it’s more flavorful than plain water. Research also has suggested its anti-inflammatory properties may help prevent hangover symptoms. As you're sipping those summer margs, keep a cactus water nearby,” Dineen suggests.
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