(NaturalNews) Nopal cactus, also well known as prickly pear cactus, has been a staple part of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine for centuries. The green pads of the nopal cactus are cooked and added to tacos, egg dishes, and Mexican salads. Research within the past ten years has caused nopal cactus to be considered a super-food, due to its antioxidant and cholesterol-reducing properties. The fruit of the prickly pear is rich in betalains. Several clinical studies suggest nopal cactus is beneficial for diabetics because it reduces blood glucose levels.
Nopal cactus can be prepared in numerous ways or eaten raw
Nopal cactus, known in Spanish as nopales, is an easy vegetable to add to a variety of recipes. The spines are cut off of the pads, the pads are chopped or sliced, then sauteed with scrambled eggs or added to omelets. Nopal cactus is often added to pico de gallo, a fiery Mexican raw vegetable medley made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, and cilantro. It can be served grilled or sauteed with onions as a garnish for fajitas, or eaten raw in salads.
The neon red prickly pear, the fruit of the nopal cactus, tastes like a cross between bubblegum and watermelon. To prepare prickly pear, the spines are cut off and the skin is removed. This leaves the flesh and seeds of the fruit. Both are edible raw as is, or can be juiced and added to beverages and other recipes.
Nopal cactus may be considered a super-food due to its cholesterol-lowering capabilities
While Mexicans have been enjoying nopal cactus for centuries, the vegetable is trending as a super-food in the natural health and raw food community in the U.S. This may be because of medical research in the past decade which confirmed that nopales has the ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels. A 2003 medical study published by Nuclear Medicine Review: Central and Eastern Europe demonstrated that ten patients with high blood cholesterol levels were given dietary counseling for six weeks, then asked to eat prickly pear cactus for six weeks. The scientists found that these patients' livers were able to handle the regulation of LDL cholesterol significantly better by eating prickly pear cactus.
Nopal cactus fruit may also be considered a super-food because of its antioxidant properties
Prickly pear fruit has gained interest in the scientific community recently because it may contain the richest source of betalains in the plant kingdom. Betalains are phytochemicals which are unique to nopal cactus, beets, and Swiss chard. It is the chemical which gives these vegetables their ruby red color. Betalains are glycosides, which means they help to reduce blood glucose levels. Medical research performed in the 1990's showed the benefits of nopal cactus for diabetes.
The antioxidant properties of betalains protect the inner lining of blood vessels and the lymph system. A 2004 clinical study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences states that the betalains in prickly pear were clearly demonstrated to protect vascular endothelial cells from the free radical effects of redox alteration from cytokines, the "signal" proteins that regulate the immune system.
Sources for this article include:
Pubmed.gov, "Prickly pear induces up-regulation of liver LDL binding in familial heterozygous hypercholesterolemia," B. Palumbo, et al. Nuclear Medicine Review: Central and Eastern Europe 2003; 6(1): 35-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14600931
Pubmed.gov, "Antioxidant betalains from cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) inhibit endothelial ICAM-1 expression." C. Gentile, et al. Annals of the New York Academy of Science; 1028: 481-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15650274