Prickly pears, also known as tuna, nopal, and sabra, grow on the Opuntia cactus plant (Opuntia ficus-indica). Although they have a prickly appearance, they are a sweet delicacy, especially when eaten raw.
What are prickly pears? The prickly pear is an oval fruit that is about 5–8 centimeters long. Prickly pears are covered in bumps called glochids and the skin of ripe prickly pears can be a range of colors depending on variety, from green and yellow to salmon and reddish-purple. The color of the prickly pear’s flesh is often not the same as its inedible skin, which is relatively thick (3–5 mm).
Prickly pears have a sweet, sour flavor. The soft flesh is similar to that of the melon and is very refreshing. As the flesh is bright yellow, orange, or redit , may be difficult to remove prickly pear stains from clothes. Prickly pears taste like a mixture of honeydew melon, pear, and fig, but also may remind you of cucumbers. The flesh of prickly pears contains edible seeds the size of peppercorns.
While the skin of prickly pears isn’t poisonous, it has fine, barely visible barbed spines. You should not touch prickly pear skin that has not been treated, as the spines are very fine and can remain trapped in your skin for days. Tweezers (and a lot of patience!) will help you to remove any spines. You can also try gently wiping them off with sticky tape.
How can you avoid touching a prickly pear’s spines? The easiest way to prepare prickly pears is to stick a fork in the flesh. Cut off the top and bottom of the pear, make a vertical slice down the body of the prickly pear and then roll off the soft skin with a knife. You can also do it in a more complicated way: you can place the prickly pear upright and remove its thick skin from top to bottom with a knife.
You can also put on gloves to make working with prickly pears easier. It is advisable to remove the prickly pear’s spines with a brush. This is a tedious job so make sure you buy the fruit without glochids.
After removing the skin, you just have the prickly pear’s wonderful flesh at your disposal. You can either cut it into cubes and cook or process further, or just eat it with a fork and knife.
Prickly pear flesh can be eaten raw, pureed, blanched, or boiled. You can cut raw prickly pear flesh into cubes and add to fruit salads to give them a tropical flavor. Boiled prickly pear flesh can be used to make delicious chutneys or jams. If you boil the juice of prickly pears with the juice of citrus fruits, you get an even more aromatic sweet and sour sauce that can be used as vinaigrette or as a special salad dressing.
Prickly pears can also be used to make thirst-quenching drinks. And the juice can flavor desserts, cocktails, mousse, and even beer (see below). Prickly pears can almost always be used as a substitute for cucumber, and is delicious in a variety of salads.1 They can also be barbecued. Prepare them like potatoes: put them on the edge of the embers and let the skin char. This gives their flesh a wonderful caramelized aroma.
Parts of the prickly pear plant can be harvested at any time, particularly the young shoots. However, they are not edible raw: they have to be cooked.
Recipes with prickly pears:
In Mexico and Central America, the stem pads (cladodes) of the prickly pear are cooked and eaten as vegetables (nopalitos). Recipe for nopalitos: Remove the prickly pear’s spines, cut the stem pads into strips, and steam them in salted water.
Rumtopf (fruit preseved in rum and sugar) with prickly pears is a popular recipe in South America. There, the prickly pears are mixed with tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, lychee, and kumquat. In Europe, Rumtopf is made with other fruits such as pears.
Recipe for Prickly Pear Jam:
In areas where prickly pears can be easily grown and harvested, it may be worth it to make a jam out of your prickly pears, especially if you cannot eat them all while they are ripe. For every 3 kg of prickly pears, take 1 kg of jam sugar and the juice of three to four limes (if you don’t have limes you can also use the juice of two lemons). The jam sugar must not be past its expiration date if you are using it to shorten the cooking time. Preserving sugar doesn’t contain pectin.
After removing the spines (glochidia or glochides) and peeling, crush ripe prickly pears with a fork, and cut harder prickly pears into small cubes. Add the jam sugar, mix well, and leave to stand for at least two hours (up to one night). Then add the lime or lemon juice and cook at a rolling boil for 3 minutes. Separate the seeds from the mixture using a sieve — most people won’t want seeds in the jam.
Immediately put the jam into clean canning jars or jam jars, close the jars, and turn them upside down for five minutes. There is no point in keeping the jars upside down any longer, because the contents might stick to the lid. If there are any germs left on the top edge of the jar and on the lid, they will be killed by the heat of the jam. However, with the right pretreatment, this step is not necessarry. You can pretreat the jars by heating them in the oven or in a saucepan; the jars should be sealed, upright, and exposed to 80 °C heat for one hour.
Purchasing — where to shop?
Prickly pears are available almost year-round in North America and Europe from specialized fruit dealers, delicatessens, and Asian shops. You may be able to find prickly pears at major supermarkets (at least in their high season) such as Walmart, Whole Foods Markets, Kroger, and Safeway (United States); Extra Foods, Metro, and Freshmart (Canada); Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Aldi, and Lidl (Great Britain); and Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, and Harris Farm (Australia). Compare the quality of prickly pears in major supermarkets with the quality of those in organic and health food stores. Make sure that the prickly pears are not damaged and don’t have any rotten spots. This may be common because the fruit has to be twisted off during picking.
You can buy prickly pear juice in health food stores and drugstores. This is a delicious drink with a revitalizing effect. The juice can also be bought as a liqueur. In addition, you can also find dried, chip-like prickly pears, which are good as a snack. And you can make tea from the flowers of the prickly pear plant.
The prickly pear’s season varies considerably throughout the northern hemisphere. In Italy and Tunisia, it can start in July and in Spain it lasts from August to December. In Peru, on the other hand, the ripe fruit is available from November to April, and in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico it is sold year-round.
What do ripe prickly pears look like? A prickly pear’s color does not depend on its degree of ripeness. You should buy prickly pears that are somewhat soft as they do not ripen. Apply light pressure to the skin — if the skin is slightly soft and has developed an aromatic fragrance, the fruit is ripe. If you harvest prickly pears too early, they will taste bland.
How much do prickly pears weigh on average? Prickly pears vary considerably in size and their flesh tends to weigh about 100 to 150 g per fruit.
The common prickly pear is found wild in warmer regions and in the subtropics across the world. In Europe, it is common on the Mediterranean and in arid regions. Like most cacti, it thrives in nutrient-poor soil under extreme sunlight. It can withstand 2 to 3 years of drought without a problem and can still produce fruit under these conditions. The prickly pear cactus has been used as food for thousands of years.2 Its extensive root system keeps the soil stable. The cacti counteract soil erosion thanks to their wide, plate-shaped pads that block the wind. For this reason they help to protect the edges of deserts.
Pipe prickly pears cannot be stored for too long. They keep in the refrigerator for a few days. It is important to take them out of the fridge about an hour before eating so that their flavor can develop. This also prevents them from tasting icy, which may otherwise arise because of their high water content.
Nutrients — nutritional information — calories:
What vitamins do prickly pears contains? Prickly pear pulp does not contain many vitamins, mainly vitamin C. However, its vitamin C content is 14 mg/100 g, which is about four times less than strawberries (59 mg/100 g) and lemons (50 mg/100 g). Other vitamins worth mentioning are riboflavin (vitamin B2), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), niacin (ex. vitamin B3), and folic acid. Prickly pears contain at most traces of vitamin E and beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor).
One hundred grams of prickly pears contain 85 mg magnesium, which is considered moderate, as the recommended daily intake of magnesium is four to five times this amount. For a comparison, peeled hemp seeds contain nine times more magnesium. Beans contain eight times more potassium (220 mg/100 g) than prickly pears. One hundred grams of prickly pears contains 7 % of the recommended daily requirement for calcium (56 mg) and only 3 % for phosphorus (24 mg). On a more positive note, however, prickly pears contain considerable amounts of fiber. They also have practically no fat and only about 40 calories per 100 grams.
If you compare the nutritional value of prickly pears with the energy they contain, the picture is much better: 100 g of prickly pears covers 2 % of an individual’s recommended daily intake of calories, whereas lemons are only 1.4 % of the recommended daily caloric intake. Looking at it this way, prickly pears are even superior in their vitamin C content.
Health aspects — effects:
How healthy are prickly pears? Some websites claim that they are superfoods — the explanations sound something like this (written by us): prickly pears’ high vitamin C content protects your immune system when eaten raw. Just one prickly pear covers about a quarter of our daily vitamin C requirement. Beta-carotene is important for the eyes3 and the immune system. Vitamin E is a vitamin that protects our cells and has antioxidant effects. However, as explained above in regards to vitamin C, the reality is quite different.
Certainly, the fiber contained in prickly pears improves gut flora and bowel transit. However, one seems to read truisms all the time, for example, that potassium helps to regulate blood pressure and is particularly important for the heart and coronary arteries. Potassium also helps to replenish the body’s mineral content when you are recovering from illness. Magnesium is also essential for heart activity and helps to control muscles and nerves. Phosphorus and calcium collectively play an important role in maintaining healthy bones and teeth.
Folate is important in the body’s "growing" process, cell division, and blood formation.4 Antioxidants contained in prickly pears are believed to help prevent cancer. Furthermore, prickly pears have been shown to have blood-thinning effects.5
The high content of fruit sugar contained in prickly pears (fructose and glucose in equal parts) improves the absorption of nutrients in the body. The prickly pear is a type of fruit that is supposed to help regulate sugar metabolism. The fruit is low on the glycemic index and is very rich in fiber, which slows down the absorption of sugar.6
Can you lose weight by eating prickly pears? Prickly pears can only assist marginally with weight loss, but they do promote eating naturally. Prickly pear cactus (nopal) extract certainly has the effect of lowering blood sugar levels. In concrete terms, this means that it can reduce high blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disorder of sugar metabolism that causes blood sugar levels to rise. Prickly pears have also been shown to work in lowering blood sugar for type 2 diabetes.7,8 The prickly pear’s genus is Opuntia, and a synonym for Opuntia is Nopalea. A nopal cactus is therefore the same as an opuntia.
Dangers — intolerances — side effects:
People who take blood thinners should be careful when eating prickly pears, as they have been shown to thin the blood. Oxalate crystals may cause a slight burning sensation on your tongue, and your urine may turn reddish. This sensation is not serious and will pass.9
Use as a medicinal plant:
Prickly pears have always been a medicinal plant of Native Americans. They contain high amounts of pectin. This destroys the harmful LDL cholesterol and strengthens good, protective HDL cholesterol. Nutritionists from the University of Arizona reported these findings. They have also shown that prickly pears can lower high triglyceride (blood fat) levels.10
Alpha-1 blockers of the prickly pear plant (not the fruit) bind to alpha-1 receptors of the bladder and can relax them to remedy bladder weakness. In addition, the plant contains phytosterols, for example, beta-sitosterol, at least in Opuntia vulgaris. This substance is used to treat conditions such as benign prostate hyperplasia (prostate enlargement).
Traditional medicine — naturopathy:
The prickly pear cactus is still used today in traditional medicine to treat diabetes. Its extract lowers excessively high blood sugar levels and can be used alongside mainstream medical treatment. Recently, prickly pears have also gained increasing attention in North America and Europe as modern and promising dietary supplements.11 The Aztecs used a recipe with prickly pear juice to treat burns.
The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a species in the cactus family (Cactaceae). The cacti are shrub-like plants that reach a height of 4 to 8 meters and function as abundant water reservoirs. Prickly pears develop from fertilized flowers that grow on the areoles of the prickly pear cactus. The prickly pear cactus thrives in tropical and subtropical climates throughout the world. Some cacti also grow in temperate climates.
Sailors brought the prickly pear to the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. Today, the second largest production site of prickly pears is said to be located around the volcano Etna in Sicily, where primarily the yellowish orange varieties are grown. South Africa, Chile, and Argentina are also large production countries.12,13 Other countries deliver these tropical plants at different times throughout the world.
Cultivation in gardens or as potted plants:
Before the Second World War, the prickly pear cactus was popular as a potted plant in Western Europe (although not in Germany) because it is easy to take care of. The plant needs a lot of sunshine and can thrive outside in summer if you put it somewhere accessible like a balcony or patio. It should not be left out in the rain.
In winter, prickly pear cacti should be kept at temperatures of 0 to 6 °C. A cellar is a sufficient location to recreate this climate. Prickly pears should be grown in sandy ground, especially at the bottom of the pot, and there should be no standing moisture. It is essential to have a hole in the pot you are using. You can obtain advice from gardening centers and on the Internet. Prickly pear cacti only bears fruit once it has grown to be about 150 cm tall.
Cultivation — harvest:
The flavor of prickly pears depends on its variety.14 They are harvested at different times in different places. Fruit pickers have a tough job picking the pears off the cacti as they are sometimes as big as trees. When prickly pears get cracks, the fruit is at risk of spoiling faster.
Danger of confusion:
The Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear) can easily be confused with the Opuntia humifusa (eastern prickly pear or devil’s tongue). The Opuntia humifusa is a low-growing species of the genus opuntia that grows with and without thorns. The Opuntia humifusa blooms from June to July, producing flowers that are mostly yellow and later reddish fruits. Opuntia humifusa can be found in America from the Canadian border to northern Mexico. The Indians of the Dakota and Pawnee tribes use the peeled shoots of eastern prickly pears to treat wounds. According to Wikipedia, the Lakota use them to treat snakebites and the Nanticoke use them to cure warts. The Opuntia humifusa has been naturalized in Europe and is a hardy plant, growing even in the Swiss Alps in sunny locations with permeable soil where the winter is not too humid. It can tolerate temperatures as low as –30°C.18
The Opuntia fragilis grows similarly to the Opuntia ficus-indica and can be found further north. From the German Wikipedia page: The Okanagan and Secwepemc people make a poultice from Opuntia fragilis to treat sore throats and other pains. They eat the plant shoots for its diuretic benefits.
Animal protection — species protection — animal welfare:
According to the trade journal Environmental Science & Technology, prickly pear flesh should help to purify drinking water containing arsenic, having the same effect as chemical additives. This is much more efficient than just using iron salts. It is also interesting to know that prickly pears are considered a food for some pets, for example, for certain turtles. Bees are the primary pollinators of opuntias (hymenoptera and beetles also pollinate opuntias).
Prickly pears (Opuntia ficus-indica) are not pears, but rather belong to the Cactaceae family. Opuntia ficus-indica is the only Opuntia species that is cultivated in the Mediterranean region.15 Prickly pears are berries. According to Wikipedia, they probably originated in Mexico.19 Prickly pears can really thrive when grown in the right climate.
Prickly pear oil is produced in Morocco; however, the production process is very expensive. Pressed prickly pear seeds produce a golden yellow oil. It takes a ton of prickly pears to extract one liter of oil.16 It is therefore a very expensive oil.
The cactus society of the three German-speaking countries, Germany, Austria and Switzerland (DACH), chose the prickly pear as the 2019 cactus of the year.19 In the same year, a brewery in Germany developed a beer mixed with 50 % wheat beer and 50 % prickly pear soft drink. The beer has only 1.6 % prickly pear juice but the beer is said to have an tropical tang.
Prickly pears are also known as nopal, nostle, tuna, sabra, paddle cactus, and Indian figs.
Prickly pear cacti used to be cultivated on the Canary Islands and in some other places in order to breed the cochineal insect. Prickly pear cacti can also be found everywhere in the wild. Cochineals were often used as a colorant in lipstick. Carmine pigment is an approved red food coloring often referred to as E120, which is produced mostly in Peru. Carmine is also an important ingredient in colored drinks such as Campari and in sweets.17 Cochineal insects can be successfully cultivated with a variety of cactus species including Opuntia atropes, Opuntia cochenillifera, Opuntia ficus-indica, Opuntia hyptiacantha, Opuntia jaliscana, Opuntia megacantha, Opuntia pilifera, and Opuntia tomentosa.20
Literature — sources:
Many researchers do not believe that Wikipedia is an authoritative source. One reason for this is that the information about literature cited and authors is often missing or unreliable. Our pictograms for nutritional values provide also information on calories (kcal).
- Vilgis TA, Vierich TA. Aroma Gemüse. Der Weg zum perfekten Geschmack. Stiftung Warentest;2017.
- Brücher H. Tropische Nutzpflanzen. Berlin:Springer-Verlag;1977.
- pro-retina.de /forschungsfoerderung /wissenschaftliche-beratungsgremien /empfehlungen/
- Apotheken Umschau Kaktursfeige.
- Wolfram R, Budinky A, Efthimiou Y, Stomatopoulos J, Oguogho A, Sinzinger H. Daily prickly pear consumption improves platelet function. PubMed. Jul;2003. PMID 12878452.
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- diabetesschweiz.ch diabetes.
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- biochemie.de von Stefanie Goldscheider.
- Linné C. Species Plantarum. Band 1, Lars Salvius, Stockholm:1753. S. 468.
- Miller P. Gardeners Dictionary. 8. Auflage, London:1768.
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- Carmen Sáenz et al. Agro-industrial utilization of cactus pear. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rom:2013; S. 21.
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- wir-essen-gesund.de Karmin Farbstoff aus Läusen.
- Wikipedia Opuntia humifusa.
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