Prickly Pear May Be Next Super Fruit

One of the fruits that I grew to love this summer in Lebanon was the prickly pear — known as cactus fruit or subbair. These seed-studded fruits grow wild on my father-in-law’s property around his house.  And I would love to eat these succulent fruits for breakfast.   I was amazed at the markets near his house where the cactus fruit would be stacked high on display…and the peeling of this thorny, desert fruit was turned into an art form.

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Prickly pear cactus has a long history in Mexico and Rick Bayless writes lovingly about the fruit (tunas) in his cookbook Mexican Kitchen, which features Crimson Prickly Pear Sauce.  

Now it seems this ancient fruit Opuntia ficus indica (eaten for 9,000 years) may be the next big thing. One of the trendiest drinks in the Southwest is the Prickly Pear Margarita  and the flavor is showing up in a range of new-age beverages, urban-detox2syzmo_prickly_pear2including energy drinks, juices, flavored teas (including Snapple) and functional beverages.  Prickly pear is gaining popularity in the alternative medicine world and dietary supplements of the fruit in powder or pill are now stocked in health food stores and marketed online.

One prickly pear-flavored drink called Urban Detox claims the beverage can help with a hangover.  Curiously, there does seem to be a study from Tulane that attempts to support this claim, however, the research was conducted with an extract from prickly pear, not with this drink.  The company claims benefits from the anti-inflammatory properties of the fruit. An animal study from the University of Arizona found that the pectin isolated from the fruit helped bring down LDL cholesterol levels. 

One company is beginning to market a line of prickly pear extracts for use in foods and beverages to “support healthy glucose levels.” Some preliminary research suggests that fiber-rich prickly pear fruit may help reduce blood sugar levels, but it’s too early to draw major conclusions.

Plus, you won’t be helping your blood sugar all that much if you indulge in the most popular forms of prickly pear — candy, jellies, syrups and sweet beverages.  You’re better off with the whole fruit — which is widely available in the Southwest, but increasingly found in supermarkets and farmer’s markets throughout the country.

It’s overkill to put prickly pear too high on a health pedestal, but this is a nutritious fruit — high in vitamin C, fiber and phytonutrients known as flavonoids.   So if you can find prickly pears near you, check them out.    They have a devoted following, including Carolyn Niethammer who has assembled a collection of recipes in the Prickly Pear Cookbook.  But if you’re new to prickly pear, you may find the pebble-like seeds in the fruit a little hard to get used to — but stick with the fruit instead of the pills or “functional” drinks.  Although, the margarita sounds like it’s worth a try.

 

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15 Comments

  • Hi, Janet. Great work on the blog. I have a funny — sorta — story about prickly pears. I think they were prickly pears, anyway. Many years ago, I was in France with my French boyfriend (don’t tell my husband :)) and we bought some prickly pears, which for me was a first. I proceeded to prepare them for his family, which included some teenage children. After eating, we all had little stickers in our mouths and throats. Needless to say, no one was happy with me, especially the teenagers (who are so forgiving! lol). I didn’t know how to clean them properly…obviously. Haven’t had them since, not because I was afraid, but just because I never see them in stores. So still don’t know how to clean them.

  • Janet

    So funny! Yes, I should have mentioned the thorns if they’re not properly prepared. I only see prickly pears at Whole Foods, for about $3 each. They are tough to find if you don’t live in the Southwest.
    Thanks for reading my blog!

  • Come by my house and pick all the prickly pear you can snatch away from the birds. And don’t forget the cactus pads–a little slimy but full of nutrients. I have never used the ones in my garden because I don’t have the patience to clean them. I like seeing the birds enjoy themselves gorging on the fruit.

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  • adam shelton

    I had Prickly Pears while hiking with a group of people in Riley Park in Orange County California this summer. I loved the flavor and it amazed me how they grew. I now search for them and I find them all over the area I live. I want to put together a sheet about them including the nutritional benefits and share this with all of my friends. I am 11 years old and my name is Adam

  • Vee

    I have found the prickly pears plants thriving on the shores of New York’s Suffolk County beaches where their is limited disturbance by park users. They grow to full size there unlike our stock in Marine Park in Brooklyn challenged by motorized bikes and even paintball operations at one point. The nutritional information information that i found was for 1 cups of prickly pear, which seems to be about 2 pears. I am going to include them in gift baskets with other non-hybridized seeded fruit and as Halloween treats since they are so odd looking yet pretty.

  • Vee

    I have found prickly pears in Harlem at the C-town at 3 for a dollar .This store also has a unique selection of medicinal teas at reasonable prices. They are competing with the Fairway , nearby, so their prices on the prickly pears and prickly pear products, that I know as “nopalitos”, should remain reasonable.

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  • This was great advise, ill be sure to put it to the test soon. I also have an informational blog about eating right and being on a healthy diet. For more info, please visit http://www.bionic-electronics.com/extensiveweightloss/ for the details

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  • chuck T.

    most older women from desert communities of the southwest, Native American and Mexican, still use desert foods and know how ro prepare them…. Ask them. They would be eager tp jhelp yopu.

  • Prickly pear will probably grow most places and is easily planted. Just take the green “leaves” / “pads” and stick the end that was attached to the plant into the ground. Cacti and succulents are both easily started from one piece of an existing plant. But use tools or thick gloves because the tiny thorns are really hard to see – and remove from you!

    Plant them where no one is likely to get into the thorns or even use them as a border to discourage intrusions. I have found the plants growing under trees and near roads where more water runs off grow larger and have ripe fruit earlier in the year so they DO like water – but not nearly as much water as a typical house plant.

    $3 a piece? Maybe I should collect and sell them! I picked a big bag full yesterday to eat. Instead of peeling them the way most videos and this post suggest, I just cut off the narrow end (where they attach to the plant) because it has many tiny thorns, then cut the fruit in half (hold it with tongues) and use a spoon to scoop out the fruit and put it in a glass jar. (The juice is likely to stain most surfaces except glass.)

    I do a cup full or so at a time, drop them into a one cup measuring cup, and put them in the refrigerator so I can enjoy a couple pieces throughout the day.

    The best fruit grows in areas where the soil gets replenished with minerals either by flooding or from the leaves of trees. The fruit I ate that grew under tall trees in an overgrown area was much sweeter than the fruit from a plant of about the same size growing under a single tree near a paved road.

    If you live on an “overgrown” property that has a pond with fish, mesquite for beans and flour, prickly pear and you get a few chickens you will be living with a food supply you can use. You may get tired of fish and eggs, but you will be healthier than those eating store-bought “food” and at least you won’t go hungry.

  • jesgrate

    Love these! I use them every day in my smoothies. The red (favorite) and green ones I buy at an international market in Reseda. I stock up and keep them in the fridge.

  • I love pears but here in asia i dont see it often in the market.
    Its a beast of a fruit to be very honest.
    Ibra
    http:/www-health-and-nutrition-resource.com

  • The Precious Drop

    Hello , The Precious Drop is conscious business and sells the prickly pear seeds extract (cactus oil , barbary fig oil ) in its pure and natural form. “Kactus by The Precious Drop” is Ecocert certified from France, cold pressed under vacuum under the supervision of laboratories .
    you can check out Facebook.com/thepreciousdrop or http://www.thepreciousdrop.com for more information and you can find there the uses, medical and research studies !

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