Prickly pear: properties, benefits

The prickly pear is a plant native to Mexico, with extraordinary therapeutic and medicinal properties. Its fruits, of different colors depending on the variety, have a high antioxidant power and are a valid help to strengthen our immune defenses. Let’s see what benefits we can derive from these tasty fruits and discover their nutritional properties together.

The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus indica) is a succulent plant, belonging to the Opuntia genus of the Cactaceae family, whose components are commonly called cactus. Originally from Mexico, imported to Europe on the occasion of the first voyages of Christopher Columbus, it is widespread in the countries of the Mediterranean basin, its ideal habitat.

It is a plant resistant to heat and drought, requires temperatures above 0 ° C and soils without water stagnation. It is currently grown in more than 30 countries around the world. The largest cultivation area is still represented by Mexico, with its 3,000,000 hectares covered by plantations of prickly pears, in comparison with only 8,000 in Italy, concentrated mainly in Sicily. In cultivation, the prickly pear plant does not require any treatment, if not small precautions to improve the quality of the fruit.

The stem of the plant is represented by the numerous flattened blades covered with thorns, called Cladodes, a characteristic of the botanical genus to which it belongs. In spring, showy flowers sprout on the cladodes from which the prickly pear fruits originate. Both the flowers and the fruits can have different colors, depending on the variety of the plant itself. In Italy, currently, the most popular are the white / green, red and yellow varieties. The color of the fruits is given by the content in pigments: chlorophyll, betalain and carotenoids.

Every part of the plant is edible. Since ancient times in folk medicine, virgin cladodes, which therefore had never produced flowers, were used to treat sore throats, skin diseases, dislocations and even malarial fevers. They were also used to feed animals, build toys and once dried, to feed the fire. The same goes for the flowers, which are still used today for the preparation of diuretic decoctions.

The fruit of the plant is mainly used for food purposes. These are berries, rich in seeds, covered with very thin thorns that easily penetrate the skin. Once considered “the bread of the poor”, today they are highly valued for their biological nature.

Prickly pears: calories and nutritional values

Prickly pear is a fruit very rich in water, with an average caloric intake (the energy provided by 100 g of edible part is equal to 53 calories). Almost all of the energy is represented by simple sugars contained in the pulp: fructose and glucose, 53% and 47% respectively.

This characteristic could place them among the fruit with a medium glycemic index. However, due to the high fiber content, the absorption of sugars is reduced so that the prickly pear can also be consumed by diabetic subjects, included in a controlled diet. The lipid content is quite low, 0.10 g of lipids per 100 g of edible part, mainly concentrated in the seeds (from which prickly pear oil is obtained). Among the fatty acids present we have: linolenic, oleic, palmitic, linoleic and plant sterols.

The prickly pear cactus is characterized by a high content of insoluble fibers represented by pectins (5g in 100g of edible part) which in contact with water swell, increasing the fecal mass. They therefore have the ability to regularize intestinal transit. Beware of excessive consumption: the numerous seeds (150-300), if consumed in excess, can cause constipation.

The prickly pear is rich in vitamins and minerals especially vitamin C (mostly present in the red variety), carotenoids, potassium and calcium and at the same time low in sodium, which makes it suitable for those conditions in which diuresis is required. increased (water retention, kidney stones, hypertension). Let’s now see the table with the nutritional values ​​of prickly pear.

Nutritional values ​​per 100g of prickly pear:

  • Waterfall: 83.2 gr
  • kcal: 53
  • Proteins: 0.8 gr
  • Lipids: 0.1 gr
  • Carbohydrates: 13 gr
  • Soluble sugars: 13 gr
  • Dietary fiber: 5 gr
  • Sodium: 1 mg
  • Potassium: 190 mg
  • Iron: 0.4 mg
  • Soccer: 30 mg
  • Phosphorus: 25 mg
  • Thiamine: 0.02 mg
  • Riboflavin: 0.04 mg
  • Niacin: 0.40 mg
  • Vitamin A (retinol eq.): 10 µg
  • C vitamin: 18 mg
  • Glycemic index: 10
  • Cholesterol: 0

Prickly pears: nutritional properties

The prickly pear in recent years has become the subject of numerous scientific studies, which confirm its extraordinary beneficial properties on human health. We have just seen its general nutritional characteristics, let’s now look at the power of the individual nutrients it contains.

  • Potassium: represents 5% of the mineral content of the organism, involved in the control of blood pressure, maintenance of acid / base balance, participates in the transmission of nerve impulses and in the regulation of muscle contractility;
  • Calcium: mainly performs plastic functions of bones and teeth. It is an essential mineral for the contraction of muscles, including the heart; promotes platelet aggregation and coagulation, as well as activation of some digestive enzymes and insulin. In addition, it participates in the regulation of blood pressure;
  • Phosphorus: 85% distributed in the skeleton and 10% in muscle tissue and collagen, it constitutes the mineral fraction of bones and teeth, it constitutes the buffer systems for the pH of the blood and nerve cells. In addition, it increases the absorption of calcium by the bones;
  • Vitamin C: Prickly pear is rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant and scavenger of free radicals. It also plays an important role in iron metabolism, supports the immune system, participates in the synthesis of collagen, carnitine and detoxification processes;
  • Betalain: these red pigments have strong antioxidant power, help protect LDL lipoproteins from oxidation by protecting the body from the harmful action of “bad” cholesterol and are involved in detoxification processes from toxic substances. Prickly pears are good sources of these pigments;
  • Carotenoids: prickly pears contain a good amount of carotenoids, pigments of orange, yellow or red color, with a protective effect from the damage of oxidative stress;
  • Flavonoids: other compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action present in good quantities in prickly pears.

Prickly pear: health benefits

The high concentration of antioxidants, vitamins and fibers, gives the prickly pear properties useful for health, as it has a good antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and beneficial action on the intestine, but not only. Let’s now see all the benefits that we can draw from these fruits.

✓ Antioxidant action

As we have mentioned, one of the main properties of prickly pears is the antioxidant, thanks to the presence of vitamins C and E but also thanks to the presence of flavonoids such as quercetin, kaempferol and isoramnetina. A recent study has shown that the antioxidant activity is much higher in the variety with red colored fruits. This characteristic is also given by the presence of the betalain pigment, the same contained in the beetroot. This property makes prickly pears also useful in counteracting oxidative stress.

✓ Anti-inflammatory action

A study highlighted the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect of the alcoholic extract from the fruits, flowers and leaves of the prickly pear. This virtue of the prickly pear would be attributable to the presence of antioxidants.

✓ Benefits on cholesterol, blood pressure and fat mass

The prickly pear has also proved useful in reducing the percentage of fat mass, blood pressure and cholesterol, as emerges from a review which, however, does not confirm its ability to reduce body weight. These characteristics are associated with the diuretic and anti-inflammatory action of betalain on the LDL molecules and with the inhibitory action on the pancreatic lipase enzyme responsible for the digestion of dietary fats with consequent lower absorption. Furthermore, thanks to the content of viscous substances such as mucilage, the prickly pear cactus reduces the absorption of sugars in the intestine.

✓ Help prevent diabetes

According to recent studies, the prickly pear has the ability to lower blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of insulin resistance. Both conditions, often accompanied by obesity as well, lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. It could therefore be said that the intake of prickly pear, given its inhibitory action on the absorption of glucose and the reduction of body fat, is a valid support in preventing the onset of diabetes.

✓ Benefits for the intestine

The insoluble fiber content, represented by cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, allows us to label the prickly pear as an ally of our intestine. This type of fiber reduces the permanence of fecal mass in the intestinal lumen, reducing the risk of unwanted bacterial colonization and the reabsorption of toxins, normally eliminated in the faeces. The benefit of the prickly pear on the intestine does not stop only in the action of the fiber contained in it. Some bioactive components, extracted from the prickly pear, have the ability to inhibit the inflammatory process in the intestine, also reducing the risk of increased permeability, known as Leaky gut.

✓ Diuretic property

The prickly pear, thanks to its low sodium content and high potassium and water content, promotes diuresis and contributes to lowering blood pressure, promotes the healing of cystitis, elimination of small kidney stones and reduction of water retention. Also useful for those suffering from cellulite.

✓ Useful in slimming diets

Thanks to its low calorie intake and high fiber content, prickly pear cactus can be considered an excellent snack in slimming diets.

✓ Benefits for skin, nails and hair

The high content of vitamin C and vitamin A make prickly pear an excellent natural supplement to preserve the well-being of the skin and hair. Vitamin C is essential for the proper formation of collagen, a protein that confers resistance to various tissues including hair, skin and cartilage. Vitamin A is able to delay the keratinization process of the tissues and therefore to keep the skin soft and younger looking for longer. Finally, the calcium and phosphorus contained in the prickly pear give greater resistance to the nails.

How many prickly pears to eat

Prickly pears belong to the food category of fruit, therefore a portion considered standard is equivalent to 150 grams or, more practically, to 2 or 3 fruits. We can also eat this quantity every day when prickly pears are in season, so as to ensure all the benefits we have just seen. To improve our diet, however, it is advisable to vary the consumption of food, inserting other seasonal fruits. So, in addition to prickly pears, you can eat other fruits such as melon, peaches, watermelon, figs, etc.

Prickly pear: some tips for use

The fruits of the prickly pear, as we have already said, are covered with thorns. On the market, the fruit has usually already been cleaned, however paying attention is always useful. To remove the peel it is advisable to use a pair of gloves to handle the fruit, or to hold it still with a fork and remove the skin and the thorns that cover it with a knife.

For storage, it is recommended to place them in the refrigerator and consume them within a few days. The best way to consume these fruits is to peel them off and eat them on the spot, as a hunger breaker or breakfast snack. They can also be used to prepare jams and compotes, after having deprived them of seeds. They are sugary and naturally contain pectins, this allows the jam to be obtained in a completely natural way. Why not, if you like to experiment, the fruits are also suitable for the preparation of risottos and tasty salads, perfect for hot summer days.

Prickly pears: contraindications and potential negative effects

Particular attention must be paid to the consumption of these fruits for those who suffer from constipation and diverticulosis. Also, although they are not common, some allergic reactions are possible. Let’s explore these contraindications of the prickly pear.

Constipation and diverticula: being rich in seeds with astringent action, we advise you to consume them with caution in case of constipation. Excessive consumption could also cause intestinal blockage. A particular precaution must also be addressed to subjects suffering from diverticulosis due to the probability that the seeds have to stop inside the diverticula and increase inflammation.

Allergies: Several fruits have the ability to trigger an allergic reaction. To date we know many allergens responsible for these reactions, however the prickly pear is not among the fruit tested directly with the classic tests for allergies (prick test, IgE, ISAAC, Faber test) but we cannot exclude a possible reaction. Let’s get to know it.

The proteins most responsible for allergic reactions caused by fruit and vegetables are called Profiline. They are capable of triggering a reaction in subjects predisposed only at the oral level (Oral Allergic Syndrome – SOA) as they are thermolabile molecules and unable to resist the action of gastric juices.

Here are some of the symptoms of the allergy:

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue and throat
  • Itching, tingling
  • Feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Redness

This reaction usually resolves spontaneously and does not cause anaphylactic shock. If, on the other hand, symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea or / and skin reaction appear, after taking the fruit it is advisable to consult a doctor.


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