12 Amazing Health Benefits of the Nopal Cactus and how to eat it

Have you ever tried nopales?  

They are the leaves of the prickly pear cactus, used in a wide variety of dishes, drinks and health remedies in Mexico and increasingly in other parts of the world too.  

I am such a fan of nopales, not just because they are delicious to eat but also because they are super nutritious and possess some amazing health benefits, which I think I only scratch the surface of in this post.  They are beneficial for weight loss, diabetes, skin ailments, and much more.

I'll be describing some of these nutritional properties in more detail below and at the end I'll give you a few recipes and ideas for how to prepare them.

Read on to find out more...

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It

The nopal is the prickly pear cactus, a plant native to Mexico which has been used since prehispanic times as both food and medicine.

It grows in arid and semi-arid regions and has the advantage that it is able to thrive in areas with poor soil quality where other crops would not survive.

Its fruit is the prickly pear, called tuna in Mexico, very delicately flavoured, crisp and watery but full of hard seeds which it is easiest just to swallow along with the fruit.  They are best eaten cold from the fridge, so refreshing on a hot day.  In my post on Aguas Frescas there is a recipe for a deliciously thirst-quenching drink made with prickly pears.

However, here we're talking about the leaves or pads of the cactus, pencas in Spanish, or sometimes called cactus paddles.  They are quite large and flat, and covered in little spines, which obviously have to be removed before you can do anything with them. Normally when you buy nopales in Mexico the spines have already been scraped off so you don't have to worry about them.  If you need to remove the spines yourself, have a look at this quick demonstration or this short article which both show that it is pretty simple to do.

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It - Image Shows Cleaned Cactus Paddles On A Plate

What are the health benefits of the Nopal Cactus?

Nopales have so many nutritional properties:  

They are extremely high in fibre which means they promote a healthy digestive system.

Nopales can help lower cholesterol levels - especially bad cholesterol - and reduce the risk of heart disease, helping prevent the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries.

They are an ideal food for weight loss due to being low in calories while at the same time nutrient-rich, high fibre and low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Their high fibre content also helps to regulate blood sugar levels - good for diabetics.

They are rich in vitamins and minerals, which can help boost metabolism, amongst other things.  

They are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals which help to regenerate skin cells and prevent premature signs of ageing.  There are many skin and hair products derived from the nopal that make use of its regenerative and moisturising nutrients.

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Cook It - Image Shows A Nopal Plant Growing In A Dry, Rocky Environment

The nopal's anti-inflammatory properties help in the treatment of symptoms of arthritis, joint pain and muscle strain.  They can also protect the stomach against gastric ulcers.

Some studies have shown that the nopal also has antiviral properties.

Flour made from nopal, particularly the largest and oldest pencas is high in calcium and has been found to help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Nopal is purported to possess anti-cancer properties and specifically may help to prevent colon cancer due to its high fibre content.

Research carried out in 2014 found that the nopal can protect nerve cells against damage, acting as a neuroprotector.

It is effective as an antibacterial agent; it can help to keep wounds clean and avoid infections when you apply the pulp from the inside of the penca directly onto the skin.

These and other possible health benefits of the nopal can be obtained from nopal extract in dietary supplements or - perhaps in less concentrated form - from eating any dish containing nopal as a significant ingredient.  However, when eaten as a food, there is less risk from possible side effects than with supplements.

How do you cook or prepare nopales?

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It - Image Shows A Sope With A Nopalitos And Cheese Topping

You might come across nopales in a surprising variety of presentations.  You can get corn tortillas or tostadas made with nopal, for extra fibre, and they are light green in colour. Sometimes you can find them made into healthy snacks. There are drinks, such as juices and drinkable yoghurts which include raw nopal in their ingredients.

The flavour is quite mild, similar to green beans but with a firm texture, almost a meatiness when cooked.  I have yet to convince my kids, unfortunately, but hopefully as they get older they will grow to love them!

They are great ingredients in vegetarian and vegan recipes because of their high nutritional content.  

I've also seen them ingeniously used as a substitute for tortillas or bread, too, topped with refried beans, cheese or ham.

Just below are a few recipe ideas.  

The main disadvantage with nopales is that when you chop them up and cook them they get a bit slimy.  I know that sounds really unappealing, but it's a kind of goo that comes out of the pulpy inside of the leaf.  It's a bit like the substance that you get in okra, but maybe more so.  You can get rid of the goo by rinsing the nopalitos in hot water after cooking or, while they're boiling, cover the pan with a clean damp cloth. The cloth seems to absorb it, somehow (this may be Mexican folklore but it seems to work!)

How to prepare nopales - a few simple recipes

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of The Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It - Image Shows Nopal Asado In A Pan

Nopal asado

One of my favourite - and easiest - ways of preparing nopales is to just grill the whole leaf in a dry pan, with no oil or anything else.  They don't get slimy that way, maybe because they've not been cut open so the moisture stays inside the leaf.  You can melt cheese on top, or top it with a fried egg for breakfast, or have it as an accompaniment to barbecued meat (in this case just put the nopal leaves on the barbecue instead of in a pan).  Delicious!

9 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Cook It - Image Shows Nopal Asado With Cheese And A Fried Egg

Ensalada de Nopalitos

Nopalitos are made with the nopal chopped into small rectangles and boiled, then drained and mixed in with diced and sautéed onion and tomato, garlic too, if you want.  To this you can add a little chopped coriander, and it's served as a topping for sopes (see image above of a sope with nopalitos and cheese topping) or huaraches, as a filling for tacos, gorditas and quesadillas, and as an accompaniment to grilled or barbecued meat, or eggs.

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It - Image Shows Nopalitos Or Nopal Salad

Jugo Verde/ Green Juice

Blend the raw nopal with orange juice or other fruit juices, with pineapple, celery, parsley, and alfalfa for a fantastic detox and/or weight loss juice.

So what's not to like? Healthy, versatile, delicious and 100% Mexican!

If you're hungry for more nopal recipes, I have a post coming soon with a more in-depth look at a variety of nopal dishes. 

Do you know any other cactus recipes?  Have you ever tried nopal cactus?   If not, I hope this post inspires you to seek it out to try!  Let me know in the comments below!

12 Amazing Health Benefits Of The Nopal Cactus And How To Eat It



Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday


  1. I have never tried cactus (not many about here in the UK). This is so interesting sounds like there are lots of health benefits. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time.

  2. Thank you for such useful information. I've never known nopales have benefit of anti-bacteria and so many more. Waiting on your recipes for these cactus cause I only cooked with it once in my cooking class.

    1. The recipe post will be out soon, hopefully later this month if all goes as planned! I'm glad you found this post useful!

  3. Wow, I had no idea! Do you think it's possible to get hold of it in the UK?

    Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time

  4. I've never heard of this but it sounds a lot like aloe vera which I love! #KCACOLS

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  13. Why would you want to get rid of the goo! that mucilage is the indigestible prebiotic fiber that feeds the friendly bacteria in your itnestines! If you fine-chop a nopal and grill it (goo and all!) with grilled oinions (do them first then add the nopales) they make a great base to blend with fried chopped liver into a paté. On Ritz crackers topped with a square of cheese, the kids will eat them until there's none left!
    Consume the goo and improve yourr digestive health.