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, 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. [1]

Edible cactus is characterized by its fleshy oval leaves (typically called pads or paddles) of the nopal (prickly pear)
cactus. [1] 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. [1]

Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium. [1]

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. [1]

The prickly pear can be diced like pineapple and used as a topping on yogurt or cereal or blended into a smoothie. [1]
Potential 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. [2]

Anyway, one of the popular species, O. humifusa Raf., has been found to have potent anti-oxidative and anti-
inflammatory activities. In their study, organic solvent extracts showed potent scavenging effects. Particularly, the ethyl
acetate fractions significantly blocked the expression of IL-1beta from the RAW264.7 cells stimulated by
lipopolysaccharide. [6]  Cactus powder was also shown tits ability for lowering the levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol
and LDL-cholesterol in normal and hyperlipemia wistar rats. However, the beneficial effect was more obviously in
hyperlipemia rats than that in normal rats in the study. [11] Further, the methanol extract of Opuntia ficus-indica was
oberved to offer a neuroprotective action against N-methyl-d-aspartate-, kainite- and oxygen-glucose deprivation-
induced neuronal injury in cultured mouse cortical cells. [8] Thus, Cactus extracts may have many different kinds of
health benefits to people at risk of certain diseases.

Cladode (a flattened stem resembling and functioning as a leaf)
Stems of Opuntia ficus-indica are traditionally used in Mexico to treat diabetes mellitus. A study with the traditional
cladode cactus extract revealed that maximum effects on blood glucose and insulin were observed after oral
administration in a dose range of 6-176 mg/kg. [A5] An ethanol extract of the Opuntia ficus-indica stem was found to
have a high amount of phenolics (180.3 mg/g), and antioxidant properties. [A11]

In a study, the mucilage of Opuntia ficus indica cladodes (stem) exerted a protective effect on rats suffered from ethanol-
induced ulcer. [3] In another study, topical applications of the polysaccharides extracted from the Opuntia ficus-indica
cladodes for six days showed a beneficial effect on the wound of rats. Polysaccharides with higher molecular weights
were more effective on wound healing than the lower molecular weight polysaccharides. The healing effects of these
polysaccharides may be related to the hygroscopic, rheologic and viscoelastic properties of these polysaccharides. [5]
Further, researchers also demonstrated the protective effect of the extracts of Opuntia ficus indica cladodes in cartilage
alteration. [4]

Opuntia humifusa, also known as the Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig, is a native cactus found in most of eastern
North America. Opuntia humifusa stem contains high levels of antioxidants including vitamin C, flavonoids, and
polyphenols, thus, it is likely that stem of this cactus may benefit people at risk of diabetes. A study of diabetic mice has
demonstrated that treatment of this cactus stem for seven weeks reduces the blood glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride
levels in the animals. [A1]  In another study, the Opuntia humifusa stem was extracted with different solvents and
screened for radical scavenging activity. Further, the cacti's bioactive fractions were evaluated for their action on human
colon cancer (SW480) and breast cancer (MCF7) cells. An ethyl acetate (EtOAc) extract exhibited the highest
cytotoxicity and resulted in an up-regulated expression of the pro-apoptotic protein Bax (bcl-2 associated X protein) and
a down-regulated expression of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl2 in both SW480 and MCF7 cells. Thus, Opuntia humifusa
stem extracts may have potential in the prevention of cancer through modulation of apoptosis markers and inhibition of
inflammatory pathways. [A10] Thus, the cactus stem of this species may offer health benefits on various conditions.

Ethanolic extract of Opuntia dillenii cladodes and its ingredients such as alpha-pyrone glycoside, opuntioside-I showed
potent hypotensive activity in rats. [A3]

Ethanol elicited the histological profile of gastritis. While, mucilage obtained from cladodes of Opuntia ficus-indica
(Cactaceae) readily accelerated restoration of the ethanol-induced histological alterations and the disturbances in
plasma membranes of gastric mucosa, showing a univocal anti-inflammatory effect. [A4]

Extracts of cactus pear fruit polysaccharide decreased blood glucose and blood limit in STZ-induced diabetic rats. It
seems that the cactus fruit extracts can stimulate the insulin secretion from the beta cells. Thus, if this effect is
repeatable in human, then, cactus fruit extract may offer benefits to diabetic patients in certain ways. [A9]

Fruit Juice
Opuntia ficus indica fruit juice contains many phenol compounds, ascorbic acid, betalains, betacyanins, rutin and
isorhamnetin derivatives, thus, it is believe that cactus fruit juice may provide many different health benefits. A study of
rats has demonstrated the protective effects of cactus fruit juice on liver. [10] It was also found that pretreatment of a
lyophilized powder containing Opuntia ficus indica var. saboten fruit juice and maltodextrin and betanin significantly
reduced stress gastric lesions in rats. [A8]

Cactus seeds are good sources of nutrients, it may benefit people at risk of different diseases. Its contents of minerals
are: calcium 471.2 mg/kg, potassium 532.7 mg/kg, magnesium 117.3 mg/kg, phosphorus 1,627.5 mg/kg and natrium
71.3 mg/kg. The fatty acid profiles of seed oil from the Opuntia ficus indica were analyzed. Linoleic acid is the major fatty
acid (61.01%), followed by oleic (25.52%) and palmitic (12.23%) acids. Myristic, stearic and arachidonic acids were
detected in O. ficus indica seed oil in low amounts. [A7] Cactus seeds are an important source of natural fiber and, given
its high linoleic acid content, its oil can be used as a nutraceutic agent. Based on its content, it is believed that cactus
seeds may have many different health benefits. In a study, diet with Opuntia ficus indica powder seeds had a significant
improvement in HDL-cholesterol of rats. Researchers found a decrease of glucose concentration in blood and an
increase of glycogen in liver and skeletal muscle among these rats. [7]

Cactus flower extracts may benefit people at risk of inflammation, diabetes and some other diseases. In Egypt, Opuntia
dillenii (Ker-Gawl) Haw has been used in folk medicine as an antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory agent. Alcohol extracts of
the cactus flowers revealed a potent anti-inflammatory effect and a pronounced analgesic action at a dose of 200 mg/kg
against a carrageenan-induced rat paw oedema model. [9] In a separate study, methanolic cactus flower extracts
(Opuntia ficus indica) showed antioxidant and antiulcerogenic activities in vitro test and in an animal study. Researchers
who conducted the study believe the antiulcerogenic activity of the cactus flower extract might be due to a possible
synergistic antioxidant and antihistamic-like effects. [A6]

Most scientific supports for the health benefit claims of Cactus are in vitro experiments and in animals. It is unclear if
Cactus can repeat the effects in human body. This article is for reference only, it is not a medical advice. One must
consult with her / his medical doctor before taking herbs, supplements or medicine. Finally, do not copy nor transfer the
content to other websites.


[1] Vegetable of the Month: Edible Cactus 5 A Day [2] Feugang JM et al, Nutritional and medicinal use of Cactus pear
(Opuntia spp.) cladodes and fruits. Front Biosci. 2006 Sep 1;11:2574-89. [3] Galati EM et al, Opuntia ficus indica (L.)
Mill. mucilages show cytoprotective effect on gastric mucosa in rat. Phytother Res. 2007 Jan 12. [4] 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. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7] 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.] [8] 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. [9] Ahmed MS, et al, Antiinflammatory flavonoids from
Opuntia dillenii (Ker-Gawl) Haw. flowers growing in Egypt. Phytother Res. 2005 Sep;19(9):807-9. [10] 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. [11] 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.

[A1] Hahm SW, et al, Opuntia humifusa stems lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels in streptozotocin-induced
diabetic rats. Nutr Res. 2011 Jun;31(6):479-87. [A2] Saleem R, et al, Hypotensive activity, toxicology and histopathology
of opuntioside-I and methanolic extract of Opuntia dillenii. Biol Pharm Bull. 2005 Oct;28(10):1844-51. [A4] Vázquez-
Ramírez R, et al, Reversing gastric mucosal alterations during ethanol-induced chronic gastritis in rats by oral
administration of Opuntia ficus-indica mucilage. World J Gastroenterol. 2006 Jul 21;12(27):4318-24. [A5] Butterweck V,
et al, Comparative evaluation of two different Opuntia ficus-indica extracts for blood sugar lowering effects in rats.
Phytother Res. 2011 Mar;25(3):370-5. [A6] Alimi H et al, Evaluation of antioxidant and antiulcerogenic activities of
Opuntia ficus indica f. inermis flowers extract in rats. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2011 Nov;32(3):406-16. [A7] Özcan
MM, et al, Nutritive value and chemical composition of prickly pear seeds (Opuntia ficus indica L.) growing in Turkey. Int J
Food Sci Nutr. 2011 Aug;62(5):533-6. [A8] Kim SH, et al, Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus indica var. saboten) protects
against stress-induced acute gastric lesions in rats. J Med Food. 2012 Nov;15(11):968-73. [A9] Liu HG et al,
Hypoglycemic effect of extracts of cactus pear fruit polysaccharide in rats, Zhong Yao Cai. 2010 Feb;33(2):240-2. [A10]
Kim J et al, Chemopreventive effect of cactus (Opuntia humifusa) extracts: radical scavenging activity, pro-apoptosis,
and anti-inflammatory effect in human colon (SW480) and breast cancer (MCF7) cells. Food Funct. 2013 Apr 30;4(5):
681-8. [A11] Lee JC, et al, Antioxidant property of an ethanol extract of the stem of Opuntia ficus-indica var. saboten. J
Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 23;50(22):6490-6.
Cactus health benefits    updated on August 6, 2013