11 Impressive Benefits of Nopales

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated - Medically reviewed by Emily Borth(MS, RDN)

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Nopales are a spectacularly healthy type of cacti with a wide range of health benefits. These include their ability to aid in weight loss, improve skin health, protect heart health, and anticancer potential. These cacti also help regulate and improve digestion, boost the immune system, optimize metabolic activity, improve bone density, promote good sleep, and reduce inflammation throughout the body.

What are Nopales?

Nopales are a form of vegetable made from the soft pads of underdeveloped prickly pear cacti. These tasty vegetative pads are either green or purple and are roughly the size of a person’s hand. They have a consistency somewhere between green beans and green peppers and are added to eggs and steak stir-fry. They are native to Mexico and Central America, and it is in these cuisines that you most commonly find fresh nopales. They are mainly found fresh in Mexico and either canned or pickled as an export, particularly to the Southwestern United States and Texas.

Closeup of nopal plants in a field

Nopal plants Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Nutrition Facts

Nopales, raw
Serving Size :
NutrientValue
Water [g]94.12
Energy [kcal]16
Energy [kJ]66
Protein [g]1.32
Total lipid (fat) [g]0.09
Ash [g]1.14
Carbohydrate, by difference [g]3.33
Fiber, total dietary [g]2.2
Sugars, total including NLEA [g]1.15
Calcium, Ca [mg]164
Iron, Fe [mg]0.59
Magnesium, Mg [mg]52
Phosphorus, P [mg]16
Potassium, K [mg]257
Sodium, Na [mg]21
Zinc, Zn [mg]0.25
Copper, Cu [mg]0.05
Manganese, Mn [mg]0.46
Selenium, Se [µg]0.7
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid [mg]9.3
Thiamin [mg]0.01
Riboflavin [mg]0.04
Niacin [mg]0.41
Pantothenic acid [mg]0.17
Vitamin B-6 [mg]0.07
Folate, total [µg]3
Folate, food [µg]3
Folate, DFE [µg]3
Choline, total [mg]7.3
Vitamin A, RAE [µg]23
Carotene, beta [µg]250
Carotene, alpha [µg]48
Vitamin A, IU [IU]457
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) [µg]5.3
Fatty acids, total saturated [g]0.02
16:0 [g]0.01
18:0 [g]0
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated [g]0.02
16:1 [g]0
18:1 [g]0.02
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated [g]0.05
18:2 [g]0.04
18:3 [g]0.01
Tryptophan [g]0.01
Threonine [g]0.04
Isoleucine [g]0.05
Leucine [g]0.08
Lysine [g]0.06
Methionine [g]0.02
Cystine [g]0.01
Phenylalanine [g]0.05
Tyrosine [g]0.03
Valine [g]0.06
Arginine [g]0.05
Histidine [g]0.03
Alanine [g]0.05
Aspartic acid [g]0.09
Glutamic acid [g]0.15
Glycine [g]0.05
Proline [g]0.04
Serine [g]0.04
Sources include : USDA

Nopales Nutrition Facts

The wealth of health benefits that come from nopales are mainly attributable to its nutrition and vitamin content, which includes niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, copper, iron, fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin K, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and manganese. Nopal is also an important source of certain organic compounds like phytochemicals and certain polysaccharides that contribute to its health-boosting power.

Health Benefits of Nopales

Let’s explore some of the health benefits of nopal that people have been enjoying for thousands of years.

Improve Digestion

Nopales are a form of cacti, so they are very fibrous and contain a great deal of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is essential in the digestive process as it adds bulk to the bowel movements, which makes it easier for them to pass through via the smooth muscle contractions in the digestive tract. The bulk that the fiber adds also stimulates peristaltic motion to move matter through the bowel thereby reducing the symptoms of diarrhea(by adding the solid bulk) and constipation. Furthermore, the soluble fiber in the body helps actively reduce the amount of cholesterol, thereby protecting heart health as well.

Weight Loss

There are many components within nopales which can aid in weight loss. First, fiber can make the body feel full and inhibit the release of ghrelin, which is a hunger-causing hormone, so overeating is reduced. Secondly, this plant is very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, but it is packed with vitamins and minerals, making nopales a low calorie, nutrient-dense food, and a good choice for those watching their weight. Vitamin B6, thiamin, and riboflavin found in it are also essential for proper metabolic function. Vitamin deficiencies can compromise mitochondrial energy metabolism, making B vitamins essential to maximize fat burning and transform food into usable energy.

Skin Care

According to researcher Borut Poljsak, “Oxidative damage is the major cause and single most important contributor to skin aging.” The phytochemical and antioxidant characteristics of nopales make them a good defensive mechanism against premature aging symptoms, like wrinkles and age spots. The free radicals left after cellular metabolism can impact the skin and by eating antioxidant-rich nopales, you can help keep your skin looking healthy and young.

Anticancer Potential

An animal study conducted on mice suggested that cactus pear can suppress tumor growth in them. Supplementation with nopales has also been shown to inhibit cervical, ovarian, and bladder cancer cells. However, the mechanism of action, or how nopales achieves this anti-cancer effect, is not clear and further research is needed to identify the underlying mechanisms and potential active substances.

According to a 2014 study, cacti seed oil is also known to have high levels of polyphenols which exhibit anticancer properties. Moreover, the same study shows that this cactus is also a source of gallic acid, which “exerts a cytotoxic activity against tumoral cells from leukemia, lung, and prostate cancer origins”.

Boost Metabolism

One of the most important aspects of nopales in terms of health is their mineral and vitamin content. Nopales contain thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6, all of which are vital components of metabolism and act as co-enzymes that are important in metabolic actions. A healthy organ system and hormonal balance help in losing weight and promoting healthy muscle gain which is important for toning the entire body.

Bone Mineral Density

A 2013 study conducted on Mexican women aged 35-55 suggests that nopal rich in calcium may help in improving bone mineral density(BMD) amongst women with low bone mass(LBM) for most of the premenopausal women.

Improve Sleep

This plant also contains magnesium that is useful in promoting sleep and improving sleep quality for those suffering from poor sleep. Magnesium deficiency is linked to reduced serotonin levels which is a precursor to melatonin that helps improve sleep. Melatonin may have a slightly sedative effect, which calms the body and helps in falling asleep.

Anti-inflammatory Agent

The juice from the leaves of nopales has anti-inflammatory effects on various body parts, including symptoms associated with arthritis, joint pain, and muscle strain. In a 2006 study published in Frontiers in Bioscience, researchers showed that consumption of nopal cactus fruit juice significantly reduced markers of inflammation in the body, namely C-reactive protein (or CRP). This protein is produced when inflammation is present in the body.

Elevated CRP is associated with many different conditions from heart problems to cancer, therefore nopales may help lower inflammation and serum CRP levels and aid in improving health for people suffering from inflammation-related conditions.

Manage Diabetes

Though study results are mixed, there is some evidence that nopales demonstrates hypoglycemic activity. Research published in the journal Complementary Health Practice shows that for patients with type 2 diabetes, it can help decrease the blood glucose levels and may aid in managing diabetes.

However, more research is needed to confirm this effect and to better understand the potential mechanism of action.

Help Treat Ulcers

Following the traditional use of nopales as a treatment for gastric ulcers, research suggests that this plant’s anti-inflammatory properties have a “protective effect against gastric lesions.”

People who regularly suffer from this painful condition may benefit from adding some of these powerful plants to their diet and improve their health.

Word of Caution: Due to their ability to regulate and affect blood sugar levels, nopales can sometimes make people hypoglycemic, and should also not be consumed excessively, especially by those on diabetic medications and before any surgical procedure operation. As always, check with your doctor or healthcare provider before taking supplements or significantly changing your dietary habits.

Other than these health concerns, nopales are a delicious and highly nutritious addition to your diet.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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