Nopales, also known as the prickly pear cactus, are a common staple vegetable in Mexican cuisine. With a flavor described as tart with a hint of citrus, nopales are becoming increasingly popular in kitchens across the United States. For those looking to lose weight and eat healthier, consuming more vegetables is a no-brainer. However, for those following the well-known keto diet, vegetables can stir up a lot of questions. With no food label in sight, how can we tell if a produce item is keto friendly?
Nopales are keto friendly because they are low in total carbohydrates and sugar. Containing less than 3 grams of carbohydrates and 1 gram of sugar per 1 cup serving, this vegetable can be a healthy addition to the keto or any diet. Nopales are nutritionally rich, low in calories and incredibly versatile and are available raw, canned, or in supplements.
Still not sure what this vegetable is all about? Let’s take a closer look!
- What Is the Keto Diet?
- Are Nopales Healthy?
- Nopales Nutrition
- Prickly Pear Cactus Supplements
- How To Prepare Raw Nopales
- Related Questions
What Is the Keto Diet?
The Ketogenic diet, also known as keto, is a popular fad diet that promotes high fat, moderate protein, and very low carbohydrate intake. Originally created as a treatment to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, the keto diet requires restricted carbohydrate intake to a mere 50g or less a day .
Carbohydrates are the main fuel for our body to function. When they are restricted, our body is forced to utilize fats which are then broken down into ketones as an alternate fuel source, resulting in fat loss.
Those on the keto diet often tout extensive weight loss in a short period of time although its long-term safety is controversial. It’s also very difficult to successfully implement a keto diet in a healthy way. Many followers end up consuming way too much saturated fat which can lead to heart disease and other health concerns.
Are Nopales Healthy?
Like all fruits and vegetables, Nopales can be a healthy addition to any diet. Low in calories and carbohydrates and rich in vitamins and minerals, these prickly pears offer many impressive health benefits.
Small studies have shown nopales to potentially improve blood sugar and cholesterol levels . High in antioxidants, fiber and carotenoids, nopales also have shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and even some small studies suggesting it can help with unpleasant hangover symptoms .
The prickly pear is also suggested to be helpful in boosting weight loss. The fiber from the nopales has shown to bind to dietary fat and remove it from the body. With less dietary fat available for the body to absorb, weight loss is more easily achieved .
It’s important to note that raw nopales are often the healthier option compared to canned or jarred. This is because canned or jarred varieties typically contain high amounts of added salt to act as a preservative. Let’s take a look at the nutrition content of raw Nopales versus their canned or jarred counterparts.
Nutrition Facts (per 1 cup):
- Calories 114
- Fat 0g
- Carbohydrates 3g
- Sugar 1g
- Protein 1g
- Fiber 2g
Goya Canned Nopalitos
- Tender cactus
- Iodized salt
- Citric acid
Nutrition Facts (per 23 pieces, 129g):
- Calories 20
- Fat 0g
- Sodium 1180mg
- Carbohydrates 3g
- Sugar 1g
- Protein 1g
- Fiber 3g
Dona Maria Nopalitos
- Tender cactus
- Serrano pepper
- Iodized salt
- Distilled vinegar
- 0.1% of sodium benzoate (preservative)
Nutrition Facts (per 2 tablespoons):
- Calories 5
- Fat 0g
- Sodium 560mg
- Carbohydrates 1g
- Sugar 0g
- Protein 0g
- Fiber 0g
As you can see, the canned or jarred varieties contain significant amounts of sodium per serving size. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) general guidelines for sodium include a Daily Value (DV) under 2300mg a day .
When looking at the Goya variety of nopalitos, 1180mg of sodium per 23-piece serving represents over 51% of your recommended sodium intake in a day. The Don Maria’s variety contains what appears to be less at 560mg, but this is per 2-tablespoon serving and still represents 24% of the DV for sodium.
High sodium intake is associated with raised blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease and stroke. High salt or sodium foods typically include those that are highly processed such as canned, bagged, or frozen convenience foods .
An easy way to cut down on sodium intake is to choose more fresh foods, rinse canned items such as beans or vegetables or choose low or reduced sodium options. Unfortunately, low or reduced sodium varieties of nopales are surprisingly difficult to come by. Because of this, raw is encouraged. You can also rinse the canned nopalitos to help to cut down on some of the sodium.
Prickly Pear Cactus Supplements
Nopales are considered a functional food due to their high antioxidant properties. Because of this, many supplement companies have begun producing prickly pear cactus dietary supplements. Below are a few popular supplements on the market utilizing various forms of prickly pear cactus from extracts to powders.
Only Natural Nopal Cactus (Opuntia) Supplement
Containing nopal cactus powder in a vegetable friendly capsule, Only Natural Nopal Cactus supplement has raving reviews for helping to reduce blood sugar and inflammation. Some reviewers even noted improvements in symptoms such as acid reflux after a meal.
Free of common allergens including wheat, yeast, corn, gluten, milk, salt, sugar, preservatives, artificial flavor and color, Only Natural products are just that. Vegetarian and vegan friendly while also being affordable, you can find these supplements at various online retailers including Walmart for $21.98.
- 1000mg of nopal cactus powder
- Vegetable stearate
- Vegetable cellulose capsules
TerraVita Prickly Pear Cactus 4:1 Extract Powder
TerraVita Prickly Pear Cactus 4:1 Extract powder versus your standard supplement pill. For those who don’t like taking pills you can mix ¼ a teaspoon with your water, smoothie, or food. You can find this supplement at various online retailers for $28.99 for a 1-month supply.
- 1000mg prickly pear cactus 4:1 extract powder
Piping Rock Prickly Pear Cactus
Piping Rock Prickly Pear Cactus contain a larger dose than the other mentioned supplements, at 1300mg per serving. With quick-release capsules, it’s encouraged to take 2 pills at least 30 minutes before a meal. At $14.69 for a 3-month supply, Piping Rock Prickly Pear supplements are also budget friendly.
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia Fiscus-Indica) (leaf) 1300mg
How To Prepare Raw Nopales
Since raw nopales are encouraged as a healthy addition to your diet, you might want to learn how to prepare them to add to meals or simply snack on plain. Because the pads of the cactus have thorns, they might appear a little intimidating at first but not to worry, they are very easy to remove.
Some markets sell nopales with the spines already removed, however if they do not, be sure to find a thick pair of gloves, such as dish gloves, to protect your hands while you remove the spines. Take a sharp knife and simply scrape across each side of the pad to shave off the sharp thorns. You can also use a vegetable peal to help remove the spines from around the edges along with any dark spots or marks.
Be sure to rinse your prepped nopales before cooking to remove any fragments. One this process is complete, you are free to enjoy your nopales raw or toss them into a pan and sauté with your favorite veggies. Nopales have a sticky juice, similar to okra, that is released during cooking however, it does cook off for those who don’t enjoy the slimy texture.
What Are Nopales Called in English?
Native to Mexico and Central America, in English, nopales are known as prickly pear cactus. This is because the size and shape of the prickly pear fruit, also known as “tuna,” in Spanish, resembles a pear however, it is not in the pear family.
The fruit of the prickly pear has numerous sharp spines on the stem, yielding the named “prickly” because it would hurt if you touched it. You can find nopales sold in Mexican with the thorns removed prior to slicing and serving. They are also sold canned and bottled as “nopalitos.” Other names for nopales include Indian fig, mission cactus, barbary fig and cactus pear.
What do Nopales Taste Like?
Nopales are described to be slightly tart and have a light citrus flavor. They have a mild taste, similar to melon mixed with the flavor of certain greens such as green beans, green peppers or asparagus. Their texture has been described as crisp and crunchy but also slightly slimy, similar to the texture of okra.
How Do Nopales Grow?
The prickly pear cactus grows in clumps of large, flat leaves. These are what are known as pads or nopales. A tradition among many Mexican families, nopales are easily shareable. By simply trimming a piece of an existing nopales cactus and planting it into the ground, it’s an easy addition to any garden .
What Are Nopales Used In?
Due to their versatility and mild flavor, nopales can complement a variety of dishes. Commonly used as an addition to egg dishes or stir-fry because of their green pepper like texture, nopales are also often used in marmalades, soups, stews, and salads. Nopales are also used for traditional medicine and as animal feed.