The prickly appearance of a cactus might not seem too inviting, but there’s some great perks hiding underneath that spiky surface. Nopal cactus, or nopales as it’s known in traditional Mexican cuisines, is chock full of delicious health benefits for our immunity, blood sugar, and even weight loss.
Let’s start with a quick breakdown of the nutritional information: In one cup of nopales, you’ll find just about 14 calories, a gram of protein, 3 carbs, 2 grams of fiber, less than a gram of sugar. They also have a nice boost of vitamins and minerals, like calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, C, and K, plus alpha and beta carotenes that act as antioxidants. A recent survey of studies found that all of those elements add up to make nopales an anti-inflammatory ingredient that can help soothe pain, protect our liver, and boost immunity.
Nopales have long been used in traditional Mexican medicine to treat high blood sugar and type 2 diabetes. In a 2014 study, researchers observed two groups of participants with diabetes. Both were given high-carb breakfasts, but only one included nopales. Those who chowed down on carbs with a side of cactus showed significantly lower blood sugar and insulin levels. Although this study was admittedly small with just 14 participants, their results are still promising.
Another study that year focused on the fiber found in nopales and its potential benefits for maintaining a healthy weight. Researchers explained, “Cactus fiber binds to dietary fat and its use results in reduced absorption, which in turn leads to reduced energy absorption and ultimately the reduction of body weight.” In other words, the particular fiber found in nopales prevents calories and fat from building up in the body, which can obviously help with shedding a few pounds.
Now, you might be wondering what nopales taste like before digging in. They have a similar flavor and texture to okra with the gel-like consistency under the outer layer. They’ve also been compared to green peppers and asparagus. Some might find them to be slightly sour, especially when eaten raw. Cooking them up should help with that, though. They make a great taco filling, like in food blogger Mely Martinez’s recipe for Nopales a la Mexicana.
You can find nopales at several grocery stores, including big chains like Walmart, but this can vary depending on your area. Mexican grocers are likely to have them, or you can order them online (Buy at Melissa’s, $11.79 for 3 pounds).
Give them a try and we bet you’ll be hooked on all the nutritional perks and delightful flavor!