Why Prickly Pears are Good for You
Some may balk at the idea of eating the fruit of a cactus but fear not, prickly pears not only taste great but they are good for your health too. Cacti are packed full of healthy nutrients which is why prickly pears have long been used as a staple food in Latin America.
Prickly pears are becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the world and for good reason. They are healthy, nutritious taste great. They are also versatile and have a range of health benefits that you can take advantage of.
What are Prickly Pears?
Prickly pear is the name we usually use to refer to the fruit which grows on the Nopales cactus plant. There are over 200 species of this cactus growing throughout the Americas and all of them bear some form of fruit.
However, not all species produce the edible type of pear that we are familiar with. When it comes to the edible prickly pears, they are mostly harvested from the Indian Opuntia species of Nopales cacti. Although there are many varieties of the fruit, the ones which are most commonly eaten or used in cooking are the Indian Fig Opuntia known scientifically as O.ficus-indica.
The prickly pear fruit grows at the edge of the plant’s spiny leaves. These oval shaped fruits vary in color from yellow and green to much darker hues like red, pink and orange.
Before you eat this wonderful fruit, it is important that you remove the skin completely to get rid of any of its sharp spines. Failing to do that can result in the spines getting lodged in your throat or stuck in your gums or lips….ouch.
Once you have peeled and prepared the fruit properly, there are plenty of ways to eat it. You can simply eat the fruit raw or cook it to make jams and jellies. It is also a popular ingredient in juices and even alcoholic beverages.
Some Facts About Prickly Pears
- The Native Americans used prickly pear fruit to make an alcoholic drink called colonche.
- Ironically, the prickly pear fruit has commonly been used as a hangover cure. It is a popular remedy for treating headaches cause by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
- Although native to America, prickly pears are now grown in other parts of the world including Morocco, Egypt, the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe.
- Prickly pears belong to the family – Cactaceae native to the Americas.
- The edible fruit is also known as cactus fig, cactus fruit, tuna and Indian fig.
- Not only is the fruit edible but the pads can also be eaten after they have been properly prepared. The skin and the prickles must be removed before cooking the pads as you would cook a vegetable. The pads have been a common ingredient in Mexican cooking for centuries.
- An insect called cochineal is a very common pest to prickly pears. The insects are actually harvested and then used to make a red dye known as cochineal. This valuable dye is used to color fabrics and cosmetics as well as food.
- The prickly pear plant was introduced to Australia in 1788 to produce chochineal which they needed to dye the British army’s red coats. By the early 1900s, the plants had invaded large swathes of the land so the government introduced a moth to control the spread of the plant.
This article covers the Prickly Pear Fruit—for information about benefits of the cactus leaf—read here.
You can get are plenty of clues to the health benefits of prickly pears by looking at their nutritional make up. This unique fruit is very high in Vitamin C and B family vitamins. It is also an excellent source of vital minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium and copper. They are very high in antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenols while they also offer an excellent supply of much needed dietary fiber.
We all know that we should be getting more fiber but the majority of people do not get anywhere near the recommended amount into their diets. An average sized prickly pear provides you with 4 grams of fiber which is around 16% of the recommended daily value for adults.
They are an excellent source of pectin which is a soluble form of fiber and also insoluble fibers in lignin and cellulose.
Increasing your soluble fiber intake can help to control cholesterol levels, improve digestion and may even protect against more serious digestive conditions.
Each prickly pear contains around 25% of your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C. Vitamin C aids numerous bodily functions including bone development, growth, immune system function and wound healing. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant which helps protect and repair the cells.
Adding more vitamin C to your diet reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and osteoporosis. Make sure that you store your pears in a cool location away from sunlight to preserve its vitamin content.
Prickly pears contain a certain amount of calcium. One medium sized fruit will provide you with the equivalent to about 6% of your recommended daily allowance. Calcium helps to strengthen the teeth and bones while it also helps the muscles and nervous system function properly.
A diet lacking in sufficient calcium can lead to increased cholesterol, blood pressure problems and weakening of the bones. Prickly pears are a great source of vitamin C for everybody and especially vegans who are more prone to vitamin C deficiency because of their diets.
One way to improve the amount of calcium the you absorb from your food is to eat more foods rick in vitamins D and K. Leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are a good source of vitamin K while you can find plenty of vitamin D in fortified cereal and fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel.
Prickly Pear Fruit Benefits
They Help Protect your Heart
Eating prickly pears may have genuine long term benefits for the health of your heart. They are full of fiber and minerals like potassium which are extremely beneficial for your body’s most important organ.
Studies on the species of cactus from which we get prickly pears have demonstrated that it might help reduce cholesterol in people suffering with hypertension. A French study published in 2007 was conducted to examine the impact of dried cactus leaves on 68 participants with metabolic syndrome.
Following four weeks of treatment with cactus leaf extract, the patients experienced reductions in triglyceride levels and LDL cholesterol levels. Moreover, HDL cholesterol levels known as the good type of cholesterol actually increased.
This marked improvement in cholesterol level is extremely significant in terms of overall health and heart health in particular. High cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis and an increased risk of killer diseases like heart attacks and stroke. (1)
Prickly pears can also help protect your heart in other ways. The potassium found in prickly pears can help to reduce blood pressure by dilating the blood vessels which reduces the overall strain on the cardiovascular system.
Compounds found in the fruit known as betalins have been linked directly to a strengthening of the blood vessel walls which protects the vessels from damage.
Because prickly pears are such a great source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, they can play a great part in ensuring your digestive health. Fiber helps to bulk up the stools allowing them to pas more easily from the body.
This helps relieve a number of common digestive complaints like constipation, gas and bloating. Increasing your fiber is also linked to a reduced risk of more serious gastrointestinal complaints like gastric ulcers and even cancer of the colon.
For the Bones and Teeth
Adding prickly pears to your diet can help get you closer to your recommended daily intake of calcium. It is vitally important that we get sufficient calcium in order to strengthen the bones and the teeth and reduce the risk of bone conditions like osteoporosis.
Nearly all of the body’s calcium is found in the teeth and bones so making sure that you get enough can protect you from bone disease and help your teeth stay stronger for longer.
Studies have found that prickly pears possess numerous antioxidant compounds including polyphenols, flavonoids and betalins.
Consuming plenty of foods that contain antioxidants can protect you from many serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. They can also prevent your eyes from degenerating and reduce the risk of cataracts.
Antioxidants may also help prevent the onset of neural disorders like Alzheimer’s. As well as the vital role they play in disease prevention, antioxidants can have a profound effect on your appearance by keeping your skin looking young and healthy.
An Italian study found that those betalins present on prickly pear protected the endothelial cell walls against oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
I am not going to suggest that adding prickly pears to your diet will miraculously help you to shed the pounds. However, there is good evidence that increasing your dietary fiber intake can have the desired effect.
The fiber in prickly pears and other high fiber fruit and veg helps keep the digestive system running smoothly and can also cause you to feel more sated. This means you will eat far fewer calories through the day especially if you replace a calorie laden snack with a delicious, healthy prickly pear.
Prickly pears have traditionally been mashed up and applied as a topical paste to swollen areas of the body. Prickly pears have also been applied to the skin to ease the pain and swelling from irritations and bug bites. The antioxidant nature of the pear means that when you consume them, they may also reduce internal inflammation.
Boost the Immune System
Because prickly pears contain such a high amount of vitamin C, they can help boost your body’s immune system and protect you from illness. In fact, just one medium-sized fruit contains around a third of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C going a long way to ensuring your health. Vitamin C is well-known to play a part in your immune system health. It stimulates while blood cell production and acts as a natural antioxidant which protects against disease.
We have already mentioned that prickly pears are rammed with antioxidant compounds like polyphenols, flavonoids and betalins. Getting plenty of these antioxidant compounds into your system can help to neutralize the harmful effects of environmental free radicals that we come across on a daily basis. Free radicals damage the cells and the DNA and left unchecked can lead to serious illnesses including cancer and heart disease.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is prickly pear good for you?
Prickly pears are a great source of nutrition. They contain high levels of important vitamins and essential minerals as well as numerous antioxidant compounds. While it may be too soon to call prickly pears a super food, there is little doubt that the fruit s very good for your overall health.
What health benefits do prickly pears have?
Prickly pears can have a positive impact on your health in a variety of ways. The can help improve your heart health and boost your digestive well-being. The antioxidants found in prickly pears can also protect against disease and boost the immune system. Being high in fiber and relatively low in calories, prickly pears may also help you control your weight.
How does prickly pear taste?
They taste absolutely delicious and can be eaten raw or used in your recipes for jams, jellies and juice. The taste is unique and very difficult to compare with other fruits. Some people compare the taste to a fig crossed with a plum while others say it tastes more like watermelon. Give it a try and let us know your thoughts on its flavor.
How do you choose prickly pear fruit?
When shopping for prickly pear fruit, choose relatively small fruit with a deep color. Avoid the blemished, broken or moldy fruit. the skin should be clean and somewhat shiny while the fruit should feel quite firm. The fruit should not be hard and a ripe fruit will yield when you apply gentle pressure. If you buy unripe fruits, they should be kept at room temperature for a few days in order to ripen. Store your ripe fruit in the refrigerator for up to three days.
They may not be the most popular fruit in the world but that is not important. Prickly pears are a healthy treat with plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are low in calories and high in healthy dietary fiber. Adding these delicious fruits to your diet will have a very beneficial impact on your health.
There are plenty of ways to eat this delicious fruit. Whether you eat them raw, put them in your juice or make them into a delicious jam, these delicious fruits are an excellent dietary choice. If you have never tried them before, we think you may be surprised how good they taste.