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Nopales (cactus) Nutrition facts and Health benefits

Selection and storage

In Mexico, young, tender, and succulent cactus paddles are typically harvested during the spring season for local consumption and export to Europe and the USA. Fresh nopales are commonly found in the southern US states where there are sizable Mexican communities, and canned nopalitos in brine are also available in grocery stores.

For the freshest options, visit farmer’s markets specializing in Mexican vegetables to purchase fresh, firm, pale green nopal pads. It’s advisable to avoid thick, mature pads as they tend to be rough, pithy, and lacking in flavor.

Once brought home, raw pads can be stored in the refrigerator for approximately a week. Diced or cut pads should be used promptly for best results.

Preparation and serving methods

Nopales, whether fresh or preserved, hold a significant place in traditional Mexican cuisine, particularly during lean days.

To prepare, hold the pad at its base and gently scrape off all the spines and bristles on either side using a blunt knife. Rinse under cold water and pat dry with a soft cloth. Next, using a vegetable peeler, remove any excess skin at the nodules. Cut into small cubes or uniform strips (known as nopaliots) according to preference. Alternatively, pre-prepared diced nopales or nopales strips are available in stores.

The flavor of fresh nopales presents a blend reminiscent of asparagus and french beans; in addition to having a chewy texture.

Here are some serving tips:

Mexican nopales dish1
Mexican nopales dish. Note cactus strips mixed with scrambled egg.
(Photo: pointnshoot)
  • Nopales can be enjoyed raw in salads, known as Ensalada di nopales, or in salsa, referred to as Nopal de salsa, paired with onion, tomato, seasoned with salt, pepper, dried oregano, and dressed with olive oil.

  • Fresh nopal is a versatile ingredient used in soups, stews, juices, and as a cooked vegetable.

  • Nopalitos can be fried into strips for a crispy treat.

  • Boiled, roasted, or grilled nopalitos make a delicious side dish.

  • Pickled nopal is a popular appetizer. Diced nopalitos, onion, and tomato sautéed with scrambled eggs are a favorite breakfast option during the Lent season in Mexico.

  • Industrially produced cactus pad (nopal) juice has been marketed as a wellness drink due to its perceived health benefits. However, scientific validation for such claims is currently lacking.

Safety profile

For centuries, native Mexicans have incorporated cactus paddles into their regular diet safely. Allergic reactions to cactus are relatively uncommon; nevertheless, individuals with known cactus allergies should refrain from consuming them altogether.

Farmers involved in harvesting spiny cacti may encounter pricks, scratches, and bruises, thus it is advisable for them to wear protective gloves and attire to minimize risks (Medical disclaimer).

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Further reading:

  1. Study of Nutritional Composition of Nopal (Opuntia ficus indica cv. Redonda) at Different Maturity Stages-pdf. (Link opens in new window).

  2. USDA National Nutrient Database.

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