What Are Nopales? (History, Origin, Nutrition and Benefits)

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Last updated: September 6, 2021

What the heck are nopales? That might be what you’re thinking when you’ve just arrived at this article.

I would’ve thought the same thing, until I discovered this unique vegetable a little while back. And I have become so excited about nopales and the nopal cactus, that I try to eat it regularly.

Read on, as I am going to reveal everything I know about nopales, where they originate from, their nutritional profile, and so much more!

What Are Nopales?

To answer the question “what are nopales”, let me tell you a little story about how I first discovered this versatile vegetable a few years ago.

“What? You eat THOSE?” That’s what I asked when I first lay my eyes on nopales.

In front of me, in the Mexican grocery store only a few blocks from where I used to live, is a large basket full of bright green cactus paddles. “Nopales”, says the price tag. Abundant and cheap, $0.99 a pound.

“Yes, we eat them! They are tasty, refreshing, packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals,” the lovely shop attendant smiles at me. She explains to me that she is a student of ethnobotany of Mexican origins.

“Nopales are really good for you and they help you lose weight! You can also use them as a natural cosmetic for your skin and hair. What more can you ask of a cactus?” Good point.

Nopales Are a Vegetable

I actually already knew a little about the Nopal cactus, otherwise known as Opuntia ficus-indica, if you like scientific names. We picked prickly pears from it on a beach in Sicily on a holiday many years ago.

Slices and pieces of nopales
Slices and pieces of nopales

No chance to take the kids to Italian beaches any time soon, so I wanted to give them at least a taste of the Mediterranean, and all those lovely vitamins that the prickly pears are packed with. I know this fruit is great for health. Sometimes they have it on sale here, among Mexican specialties, labeled as “tuna”.

What I didn’t know is that the cactus paddles are food too!

History of the Nopal Cactus

“The fruit of the nopal cactus is the heart of Copil, a great warrior and sorcerer. He was killed in a terrible power fight with the sun god Huitzilopochtli and his heart was cut out and thrown into a lake.”

“A cactus grew from it. See that?” Rosa, the shop attendant, points to a large Mexican flag on the wall. And there it is, the nopal cactus, right in the center. A large eagle is perched on it, eating a serpent.

“That is the symbol of the city of Tenochtitlan, the “place where cactus pear grows on stone, today’s Mexico City. The legend says that the wandering Mexica founded the capital of their empire following a prophecy. They had to find an eagle sitting on the cactus that grew from Copil’s heart.”

Where nopales grow, that is a good place to live. A piece of ancient wisdom that makes absolute sense: abundant food and medicine within reach.

The Conquistadores Brought Nopales to Europe

I learned much more from Rosa. The prickly cactus is also called la planta de vida (the life-giving plant) because it regrows from fallen pads that root easily.

“But wasn’t this cactus imported from Italy?”

“No! It’s the other way round. It traveled to the Mediterranean with the conquistadores.”

Nopal cactus
Nopal cactus

Another fascinating story, this time from a historic chronicle: the Spanish navy learnt to use the life-giving plant to save their sailors from scurvy. Lack of vitamin C can kill you if you are at sea for months without fresh fruit and vegetables to eat.

The prickly cactus is packed full with vitamin C. This is why Spanish ships started to stock up with its fruit and paddles to consume on long journeys.

As a product from the “New Indies”, it was called Indian Fig. Barbary Fig, mission cactus, and cactus pear all refer to the same plant.

The conquistadores took the nopales to Spain and to the whole Mediterranean. From there, the prickly cactus literally conquered the world, settling happily wherever there are arid or semi-arid regions.

The Nopal Cactus Creates Wealth

Today the nopal cactus is big business. In Mexico, it is the engine of an industry worth 150 million dollars that gives jobs to 10,000 people.

There are many more countries that grow Opuntia ficus-indica commercially:

China, India, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Chile, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, South Africa, just to name a few. Oh, and the United States also!

The fact is that everybody is discovering the benefits of eating cactus. Who would have guessed?

How to Eat Nopales?

“Let me clean these for you,” Rosa says.

Great idea. I have a vivid recollection of painful, hair-like thorns sticking in my fingers for days. Picking prickly pears in Sicily came at a price.

Both paddles and fruit have long hard barbed thorns plus the “glochids”, those furry and fluffy white spots that are really vicious micro torturers. They pierce your skin at the slightest touch, break easily, and you go crazy removing them. Better leave the cleaning to an expert.

Nopales in a bowl
Nopales in a bowl

A lighter appears in Rosa’s right hand. She swiftly burns off both types of thorns and removes the “eyes” on the paddle with a sharp knife. Then she trims the edge of the nopal and gives it a good wash.

“It’s important to try and keep as much of the skin as possible. For taste and nutrients too,” she explains. She cuts a strip from the paddle and offers it to me on the knife’s tip.

“Try it. Always choose smaller, greener nopales like this one. The larger and older ones are fibrous and bitter. Pick paddles that are tender but firm, not flabby”.

What Do Nopales Taste Like?

Slightly citrusy. Crunchy and a bit squishy at the same time. A mix of asparagus and French beans, perhaps a bit like raw bell pepper too.

“Boil them for ten minutes if you don’t like the gel. You can add some vinegar too”, Rosa suggests.

“But if you want the strongest health benefits, eat them raw. Make a smoothie. Blend them with diced pineapple or cucumber, mix them with a little orange juice. Add them to salads. Or eat them for breakfast with scrambled eggs, ‘nopales con huevos’ is a Mexican classic”.

Mexican nopal taco meal
Mexican nopal taco meal

Great for my early morning energetic breakfast! Running or cycling is something that I do best when the family is still sleeping. Scrambled eggs are a favorite of mine, they are ready in a flash and give me an energy boost. I always top them with deliciously fresh vegetables.

Welcome to my menu, nopales!

I have already found zillions of other recipes. Grilled nopales, stewed nopales, deep-fried nopales, nopales with all sorts of meats or vegetables, nopales sauces and pestos… Even candied nopales!

The sky really is the limit as far as I am concerned.

Nutritional Profile of Nopales

What do the official sources say about the nutritional value of the nopal cactus? I paid a visit to the Food Data Centre of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They have measured the nutrients in 100 grams for cooked/unsalted and for raw nopales. Some items caught my eye. I singled these out and I put them in this little table for you:

Nopales Nutritional Profile
Cooked (100 g) Raw (100 g)
Water 94.31 g 94.12 g
Energy 15 kcal (1% DV) 15 kcal
Protein 1.35 g (3% DV)) 1.32 g
Fat 0.05 g (0% DV) 0.09 g
Cholesterol 0 g (0% DV) 0 g
Carbohydrates 3.28 g (1% DV) 3.33 g
>> Dietary fiber 2.0 g (9% DV) 2.2 g
>> Sugars 1.12 g (2% DV) 1.2 g
Calcium 164 mg (13% DV) 164 mg
Magnesium 47 mg (12% DV) 52 mg
Manganese 0.4 mg (20% DV) 0.457 mg
Potassium 195 mg (5% DV) 257 mg
Sodium 20 mg (1% DV) 21 mg
Vitamin A (RAE) 443 IU (15% DV) 457 IU
Vitamin C 5.3 mg (10% DV) 9.3 mg
Vitamin K 5.1 mcg (6%) 5.3 mcg
Source: USDA (raw nopales) en USDA (cooked nopales)

The Percent Daily Values (DV %) come from this handy calculator. This is a helpful tool I use to find out nutritional profiles of different foods.

DV % is so useful because it tells you what percentage of the recommended intake of specific nutrients that you can get from a serving of any particular food. The standard considered for a daily diet is 2,000 calories a day.

Nopales salad
Nopales salad

I am not a nutritionist, but I like to know what I eat and what it does to my body. The numbers above tell me that nopales are a very clean vegetable:

  • Mostly water
  • An interesting quantity of dietary fiber
  • No cholesterol
  • Hardly any fats
  • Negligible amounts of carbohydrates and sugars
  • Extremely low quantity of calories produced

So what does this all mean? if you need an energy boost, nopales are not your best option. Nor to build muscle because they have very little protein.

But if you need to supplement vitamins C, A and K, this is definitely an excellent veggie to add to your diet. In that regard, I could add nopales to my list of favorite veggies high in vitamin K.

If you need more manganese, magnesium, calcium… eat nopales. Potassium is a whole chapter by itself, I will write more on its benefits in the next section.

See the comparison between cooked and raw values in the table: part of the vitamins and minerals are lost when cooking the paddles. Nearly half the vitamin C is gone! That’s one argument in favor of raw nopales in smoothies and salads, as suggested by Rosa.

Health Benefits of Eating Nopales

There are several nopal-based supplements on sale today. And lots of claims on its benefits. I am cautious about new products and miracle claims, I always check. As a stay-at-home mom, I have time to read a lot.

For example, I found that a company that produces and markets nopales juice with very bombastic claims, had to pay a hefty fine. You can read the story on this blog that reports on Federal Trade Commission regulations and happenings.

Nopal cactus flower
Nopal cactus flower

Nopales do contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances. But what are their effects exactly? This is something that has been keeping lots of scientists busy in the last few years.

If you are into scientific reading, this study of a joint French-Moroccan research group has a wealth of information. It’s a long read though!

As for me, I have decided to add the prickly cactus to my diet. The following three benefits of eating nopales are more than sufficient:

1. Can Help With Lowering Blood Pressure

Nopales are rich in potassium and poor in sodium: they can help you keep your blood pressure in good shape.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. government) says that you can get high blood pressure by consuming too much sodium and not enough potassium. Read their article on “The Role of Potassium and Sodium in Your Diet“.

Medical News Today says that adults should consume 4,700 mg of potassium a day, but less than 2% of people in the U.S. do so. Even worse, people in the U.S. eat abysmal quantities of sodium from processed food.

This leads to high blood pressure, because these two minerals work together. When their balance is out of wack, hypertension and a higher risk of heart disease and strokes are the result.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans eat more foods rich in potassium.

2. They Fit in a Weight Loss Diet

Nopales can make you feel satiated (the fibers!) while producing a ridiculously low amount of calories. Good for losing weight? Definitely.

Their high amount of potassium is another positive factor because it helps regulate fluids around our cells and prevent water retention. That can mean three to five pounds of extra weight. And make us feel bloated.

3. Can Help With Lowering Blood Sugar Levels

In Mexico nopales are used as a cure for diabetes. Thanks to the dietary fiber that mops up a lot of excess sugar and removes it from the bloodstream.

We get too much sugar in our diet, again from processed foods. Whatever can fix that is most welcome on my table!

The high concentration of manganese in nopales is beneficial too. Manganese deficiency is associated with diabetes.

Bonus: Nopales for Your Skin and Hair

Back in my kitchen. The jelly-like substance that oozed from the nopales while I was slicing them reminded me of aloe vera.

Without thinking, I did a simple test: I spread some on my face. The effect, when I rinsed it 10 minutes later, was very much like aloe. Soft and shiny skin, very nicely moisturized. Later I tested it as a hair mask in the same way. I am delighted with the results. Nopales gel made my hair very silky.

All in all, Rosa got herself a mucho aficionada new client! My nopales journey of discovery has only just begun.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Who would have thought that one cactus could be so fascinating in so many different ways.

I strongly encourage you to go out there and try and find nopales. They are a unique and versatile vegetable, and I’m sure you will appreciate them as much as I currently do.

But before you go, make sure you read my list of weird and unique vegetables for more interesting things you can eat!


Guide to the nopal cactus and nopales

Donna Harrison

I created Healthy Food Tribe because I am passionate about discovering new foods and learning everything about them. I am also a smoothie fanatic and I document all my favorite recipes here on my blog.

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