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Chapter 3—The Healing Parts of the Prickly Pear Cactus
Very few plants in the botanical kingdom are a vegetable, fruit, flower, and, most importantly, a medicine. The prickly pear cactus is unique among cacti, and in fact among all plants, in that each part of the plant may be used for some healthful purpose. The fruit of the cactus—also known as the pulp or tuna—can be eaten much like other fruits. The pad is the source of many vitamins and minerals. The flowers, which grow from the fruit, are used as herbs. Each of these uses is detailed in the following sections.
One of the tastiest parts of the prickly pear cactus is the fruit. Although low in calories, it is apt to satisfy the sweetest tooth and therefore makes an ideal treat for those watching their waistline. It is similar in shape to the kiwi and comes in its own convenient wrapper. It can be picked off the cactus and eaten raw or prepared in many different ways.
The most common preparations of the fruit are in the forms of beverages, syrups, candies, jellies, marmalades, barbecue sauce, and popsicles (see chapter 11). In the Caicos Islands and throughout various communities in Latin America, the fruit is used for making wine and other alcoholic beverages.
The common name for the prickly pear fruit is tuna. Other names for the fruit include Indian fig and cactus pear. The fruit is becoming increasingly available in the United States in grocery and specialty stores. When available, it is offered for sale both fresh and dried. In Israel, where exportation of the cactus fruits has grown into a large, commercially successful business, the fruit is referred to as a “sabrah.” Interestingly, the word sabrah is also used to identify a person born in the land of Israel. According to local folklore, like the prickly pear fruit, the people of Israel have a rough exterior but are tremendously sweet and soft inside.
Vitamin and Mineral Content
The fruit is packed with co-factors that boost immunity. It contains significant portions of the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It also contains a large proportion of antioxidant compounds, including flavonoids, that help protect against cancer and are chiefly responsible for protecting the body against the oxidation of cholesterol, a subject that will be investigated in chapter 4. Like the pads (see below), the fruit is high in vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene and also vitamin C.
The fruits of the prickly pear have been under intense focus by researchers in recent years. Scientists have noted positive links between the consumption of the cactus fruit and its antihyperglycemic effects. In a study published by the International Journal of Pharmacognosy, researchers found that the daily intake of the prickly pear fruit yielded positive results in laboratory animals. For example, the Opuntia dillenii species of the fruit has exhibited a notable antidiabetic effect on rabbits. This species of fruit produced hypoglycemia in rabbits mainly by reducing intestinal absorption of glucose.
Studies conducted at the University of Arizona by Dr. Maria Luz Fernandez, one of the prickly pear’s key researchers, show the effects of diet on cholesterol metabolism. Her research includes the use of prickly pear pectin, a glutinous substance found in the cactus fruit. The results of the tests point to a decrease in plasma cholesterol, which is mainly a decrease in low-density lipoprotein. Other results also suggest that prickly pear pectin may modulate the body’s glucose response.
The nutritional content of the fruit of the prickly pear is only surpassed by the nutritional content of the prickly pear’s pads.
Vitamin and Mineral Content
The modest cactus pads of the prickly pear are a storehouse of nutrients. They include a healthy dose of the minerals potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. They are also particularly high in the dietary antioxidant vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) in levels comparable to spinach, and high in the antioxidant vitamin C.
Antioxidants are agents that restrict the deleterious effects of oxidant reactions within the body. Daily intake of antioxidants has shown to be effective in preventing the oxidation of arterial cholesterol and reversing arterial damage. In chapter 4, I will explore the role of antioxidants on plasma LDL cholesterol concentrations.
The pads also contain a full range of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, including the eight essential amino acids not manufactured by the body. The benefits of amino acid consumption are far-reaching, as protein is involved in multiple chemical interactions within the body. It is extremely rare that a plant source provides such a high and broad composition of amino acids as the prickly pear. Its utility as a nutritional, high-fiber, low-fat food is amplified by this unique and exquisite amino acid profile. Vegans and vegetarians who rely on legumes such as soybeans and peas to fulfill their protein requirements will find in the nopal pads a high-quality source of protein.
According to Charles W. Weber, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona, perhaps the most important component in the cactus is its dietary soluble fiber, which comes especially in the mucilage and pectin.1 Mucilage is the sticky juice that oozes from the pad when it is sliced. In medical circles, this sticky substance is referred to as mucilaginous polysaccharide. Interestingly, the polysaccharides are the primary active ingredient of other popular immune-stimulating herbs such as aloe vera, echinacea, astragalus, and Oriental mushrooms.
Other recent medical studies on the prickly pear cactus pads have explored and verified their use as an “antidiabetic” remedy. Studies published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and Diabetes Care have documented the effectiveness of prickly pear pad use in the treatment of individuals with type II diabetes. Results of the studies have yielded strong positive results showing a noticeable hypoglycemic effect in patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM).