What is a cactus? A cactus (plural cacti or cactuses) is any member of the succulent plant
family Cactaceae. They are often used as ornamental plants, but some are also crop plants.
Edible cactus is also known as nopales (no-PAH-les), nopalitos or cactus pads. This vegetable is
popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India,
North Africa and Australia. Its popularity is increasing in the United States where it can be found at
Mexican grocery stores, specialty produce markets and farmer’s markets. 
Edible cactus is characterized by its fleshy oval leaves (typically called pads or paddles) of the
nopal (prickly pear) cactus.  With a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit sticky (not
unlike okra) when cooked, edible cactus tastes similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or
green pepper. 
Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C
and calcium. 
What is the difference between cactus leaves (edible cactus or nopales) and
the prickly pear?
As part of the cactus plant, the prickly pear is a fruit that is 2 to 4 inches long and shaped like an
avocado. Its skin is coarse and thick, not unlike an avocados and it ranges in color from yellow or
orange to magenta or red. Tubercles with small prickly spines can be found on the prickly pear’s
skin. This fruit’s flesh, which ranges in color also from yellow to dark red, is sweet and juicy with
crunchy seeds throughout. 
The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended
into a smoothie. 
What are the health benefits of cactus?
Because of the great number of potentially active nutrients and their multifunctional properties,
cactus pear (Opuntia spp.) fruits have been suggested for the production of health-promoting food
and food supplements. However, scientific findings are actually very limited to support any health
claims on these products or supplements. 
In traditional medicine, extracts of polysaccharide-containing plants are widely employed for the
treatment of skin and epithelium wounds and of mucous membrane irritation. While, the extracts of
Opuntia ficus-indica cladodes are believed to benefit conditions such as anti-ulcer and wound-
healing activities. A study has showed the protective effects of the mucilage of Opuntia ficus indica
cladodes on ethanol-induced ulcer in rats.  In another study, after application of polysaccharides
extracted from Opuntia ficus-indica cladodes topically to the wound of rats for 6 days, researchers
noted its beneficial effects. They also observed that polysaccharides with a MW 10(4)-10(6)Da is
more effective on wound healing than with MW>10(6)Da. They believe the healing effects of these
polysaccharides are related to their hygroscopic, rheologic and viscoelastic properties. 
Studies found that O. ficus indica fruit juice contains many phenol compounds, ascorbic acid,
betalains, betacyanins, rutin and isorhamnetin derivatives and a study of rats has demonstrated its
hepato-protective effects.  Researchers from University of Catania, Viala have shown the
protective effect of the extracts of Opuntia ficus indica cladodes in cartilage alteration and these
extracts were able to contrast the harmful effects of proinflammatory cytokine interleukin-1beta (IL-
1beta) in their in vitro study.  While, researchers from Kangwon National University, Korea, found
that O. humifusa Raf. had a potent anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory activity. In their study, all
organic solvent fractions showed potent scavenging effects. And, ethyl acetate fractions
significantly blocked the expression of IL-1beta from the RAW264.7 cells stimulated by
Researchers from Tunisia further explored the potential beneficial effects of Cactus. They found
diet with Opuntia ficus indica powder seeds had a significant improvement in HDL-cholesterol of
rats. They also found a decrease of glucose concentration in blood and an increase of glycogen in
liver and skeletal muscle among these rats.  While, researchers from Harbin Medical University,
China, demonstrated that opuntia powder lower levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL-
cholesterol in normal and hyperlipemia wistar rats. The beneficial effect was more obviously in
hyperlipemia rats than that in normal rats in the study. 
Kim JH and co-workers from Cheju National University, Korea, found that the methanol extract of
Opuntia ficus-indica has a neuroprotective action against N-methyl-d-aspartate-, kainite- and
oxygen-glucose deprivation-induced neuronal injury in cultured mouse cortical cells. 
In Egypt, Opuntia dillenii (Ker-Gawl) Haw has been used in folk medicine as an antidiabetic and anti-
inflammatory agent. Ahmed MS from Cairo University, Egypt, found that alcohol extracts of the
flowers revealed a potent anti-inflammatory effect and a pronounced analgesic action at a dose of
200 mg/kg using a carrageenan-induced rat paw oedema model. 
NOTE There are over 100 articles about the potential benefits of cactus and its extracts, but most of them are either animal
studies or in vitro studies. Besides, the contents of the extracts vary from studies to studies. Having edible cactus as a 5 A Day
food is excellent. However, you must consult with your doctor, if you use it as a supplement. The side effects or the toxic
effects of cactus extracts have not studied thoroughly.
 Vegetable of the Month: Edible Cactus 5 A Day  Feugang JM et al, Nutritional and medicinal use of Cactus pear (Opuntia
spp.) cladodes and fruits. Front Biosci. 2006 Sep 1;11:2574-89.  Galati EM et al, Opuntia ficus indica (L.) Mill. mucilages show
cytoprotective effect on gastric mucosa in rat. Phytother Res. 2007 Jan 12.  Panico AM, et al, Effect of hyaluronic acid and
polysaccharides from Opuntia ficus indica (L.) cladodes on the metabolism of human chondrocyte cultures. J Ethnopharmacol.
2006 Dec 2.  Trombetta D, et al, Effect of polysaccharides from Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) cladodes on the healing of dermal
wounds in the rat. Phytomedicine. 2006 May;13(5):352-8. Epub 2005 Sep 13.  Cho JY, et al, Radical scavenging and anti-
inflammatory activity of extracts from Opuntia humifusa Raf. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2006 Jan;58(1):113-9.  Ennouri M, et al,
Evaluation of some biological parameters of Opuntia ficus indica. 2. Influence of seed supplemented diet on rats. Bioresour
Technol. 2006 Nov;97(16):2136-40. Epub 2005 Nov 14.]  Kim JH, et al, Opuntia ficus-indica attenuates neuronal injury in in vitro
and in vivo models of cerebral ischemia. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Mar 8;104(1-2):257-62. Epub 2005 Oct 21.  Ahmed MS, et al,
Antiinflammatory flavonoids from Opuntia dillenii (Ker-Gawl) Haw. flowers growing in Egypt. Phytother Res. 2005 Sep;19(9):807-9.
 Galati EM, et al, Opuntia ficus indica (L.) Mill. fruit juice protects liver from carbon tetrachloride-induced injury. Phytother Res.
2005 Sep;19(9):796-800.  Li CY, et al, Regulative effect of Opuntia powder on blood lipids in rats and its mechanism Zhongguo
Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2005 May;30(9):694-6.
What are the health
benefits of Cactus?
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