Freaky Fruits: Cactus Pears

Now, if Scientology, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, Pokemon, and the Ice Capades didn’t tip you off, we live on a strange planet—with strange inhabitants. And I’m not just talking about Britney Spears. Take kohlrabi for example. You remember kohlrabi, don’t you? The unusual beet-looking vegetable loaded with fiber and minerals, enjoyed by humans and K9s alike.

Kohlrabi was DiseaseProof’s first Strange Veggie, a new series dedicated to shedding light on extraordinary vegetables you may or may not have heard of. And now—drum roll please—get ready for the first Freaky Fruit, Cactus Pears, or, as they’re known to some, Prickly Pears. Actually they also called Opuntia and Nopalitos. As you’ll see, this spiny fruit has a lot of history and loads of intrigue. Here’s a little introduction from Wikipedia:
Prickly pears, classified in the subgenus Opuntia, typically grow with flat, rounded segments that are armed with two kinds of spines; large, smooth, fixed spines and small, almost hair-like spines called glochids that easily penetrate skin and detach from the plant. Many types of prickly pear can grow into dense, tangled structures. Prickly pears species are found in abundance in the West and Southwest of the United States and throughout much of Mexico. Prickly pears are also the only types of cactus normally found in the eastern United States. They are the most cold-tolerant of the cacti, extending into northern Canada; one species, Opuntia fragilis var. fragilis, has been found growing along the Beatton River in the province of Alberta, southwest of Cecile Lake at 56° 17’ N latitude and 120° 39’ W longitude.
Okay, I’m sure some people hear Cactus Pears and wonder, “How the heck do you eat something with spines?” Trust me, they’re not that intimidating. How do I know? Check out this bunch I bought at the local farmers market the other day. My apologies for the shady looking webcam photo:

In a few days they’ll be ripe and ready for the sacrifice. And they sure are tasty, but, are they good for you? As you know, Dr. Fuhrman makes it clear that fruits and vegetables are packed with health-promoting nutrients. So, how do Cactus Pears stack up? GourmetSleuth breaks down their nutritional information. Just look at all the minerals they contain:

Cactus Pears have also grabbed the attention of scientists. According to ongoing research Cactus Pears might be helpful in controlling conditions like viral infections and cholesterol. From WiseGeek:
The pads and fruits of the prickly pear are useful in stabilizing blood sugar because they are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fiber. Because prickly pear cactus contains significant amounts of vitamins B1 and B6, it is also sold in capsule form as a supplement. Research is ongoing to determine whether cactus is helpful in controlling cholesterol, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, skin problems, and even viral infections.
Wikipedia also has more on the possible medicinal effects of Cactus Pears:
The stem of Opuntia spp. is used to treat type II diabetes, diarrhea, and stomach ache. However, usefulness of Opuntia (also known as Nopal or Nopalitos in Spanish) in treating diabetes is not at all clear at this time. Although some researchers have shown a glucose lowering effect of Opuntia streptacantha,[1] another study of three other species of Opuntia (Opuntia lasiacantha, O. velutina, and O. macrocentra) showed no such effect.[2] Another study of Opuntia megacantha raised concern about toxic effects on the kidney.[3] It may be that certain species are effective and useful in diabetes while others are not but this needs to be clarified with further research before recommending its use. Furthermore, when buying Nopalitos in the market it is impossible to know which species one is buying and therefore whether or not it is useful in treating diabetes.

Alcohol hangover
Opuntia ficus indica may have a reducing effect on alcohol hangover by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators. Studies have yielded differing results, with some studies witnessing significant reductions in nausea, dry mouth, and loss of appetite as well as the risk of a severe hangover[4] while others witnessing no compelling evidence suggesting effects on alcohol hangover.[5]
With credentials like that, it's no wonder why Cactus Pears have their own island. Back to Wikipedia:
Prickly Pear Island, Antigua, has 12 residents, all of whom were born on the island.

Despite the name, prickly pears are not the island's only source of wealth. Tourism contributes substantially to the island's income.

Despite the above description - the prickly pear Island, which is just off the Northern coast of Antigua, is uninhabited. It is run by Miguel and his family as an island where you can take a day trip out - have a simple buffet meal with local foods, help yourself to drinks, and enjoy the sun.
Now, if Antigua is too far. Mexico boasts many vareites of Cactus Pears, from white to yellow, to green, to purple—oh my! The Small Farm Center at The University of California explains:
Individual taste preferences will dictate which varieties to choose for eating fresh and which for cooking. In Mexico alone, there are over 100 species with edible fruits. Sam Williams, a cactus enthusiast in Carmichael, California, says that while all the fleshy fruit kinds are edible and none are poisonous, only a few are palatable and even fewer taste really sweet. They range from juicy to dry and sweet to acid. Cantwell-de-Trejo says that the acidity and fibrousness of the fruits are called "xoconochtlis" and are used in certain traditional Mexican stews and other dishes.

Fruit size, shape, and color vary from small and round like a walnut to three inches long and two inches wide like a rounded cylinder. Skin and flesh come in a rainbow of colors (white, green, yellow, orange, red, purple, and brown. White-skinned varieties are the most popular in Mexico, says Cantwell-de-Trejo, while the sweetest varieties generally available in this country have dark reddish-orange or purple skins and deep red-purple flesh. The fruit contains about one-half the amount of an orange. According to Cantwell-de-Trejo, this is its most important use in the diet of rural Mexicans.
See, despite their freaky namesake Cactus Pears pack quite the nutrient-rich punch, and, they happen to be one of my favorite fruits. Have you ever eaten them before? If you have, I’m sure you can relate to discovering a tiny spine in your finger hours later—ouch! Try rubbing them vigorously with a paper towel before cutting them open, that usually does the trick. If not you’ll find yourself driving down the highway, riding the subway, or at the movie theater wishing you had a pair of tweezers!

I hope you enjoyed DiseaseProof's first Freaky Fruit. And, like I said before, keep your eyes peeled, freaky fruits and strange veggies are all around us. You never know when one might pop up. Now, if you’ve got something to say about Cactus Pears we’d love to hear it. Just make a comment or email us at


1. Frati-Munari, A.C.; Fernandez-Harp J.A., de la Riva H, Ariza-Andraca R, del Carmen Torres M (1983). "Effects of nopal (Opuntia sp.) on serum lipids, glycemia and body weight". Archivos de investigacion medica (Mexico) 14 (2): 117-125. PMID 6314922. Retrieved on 2006-12-09.

2. Rayburn, Keith M.D.; Martinez, Rey Ph.D., Escobedo, Miguel M.D. M.P.H., Wright, Fred Ph.D., Farias, Maria M.T. (1998). "Glycemic Effects of Various Species of Nopal (Opuntia Sp.) in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus". Texas Journal of Rural Health 16 (1). Retrieved on 2006-12-09.

3. Bwititi, P.; Musabayane, C.T., Nhachi, C.F.B. (2000). "Effects of Opuntia megacantha on blood glucose and kidney function in streptozotocin diabetic rats". Journal of ethnopharmacology 69 (3): 247-252 (13 ref.). ISSN 0378-8741 PMID 10722207. Retrieved on 2006-12-09.

4. Wiese, Jeff M.D.; McPherson, Steve MD; Odden, Michelle C. BS; Shlipak, Michael G. MD MPH (2004-06-28). "Effect of Opuntia ficus indica on Symptoms of the Alcohol Hangover". Archives of Internal Medicine 164 (12): 1334-1340. PMID 15226168. Retrieved on 2006-12-09.

5. Pittler, Max H.; Verster, Joris C.; Ernst, Edzard (2005-12-24). "Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover: systematic review of randomised controlled trials". British Medical Journal 331: 1515-1518. DOI:10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1515. PMID 16373736. Retrieved on 2006-12-09.
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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
marilyn hughes - January 27, 2008 7:59 AM

How can we order or obtain theses pears in the UK? - Desperately like to see if they will help my 2 diabetic children.

Josef - February 7, 2010 2:50 PM

There is any information that the Opuntia ficus-indica are indicated fot treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy?

Frederick.Culpepper - May 10, 2010 3:49 PM

Cactus leaves and dragon fruit (hyloserus undatus cactus), nutritional value? I have a Texas giant, 15 feet tall with many leaves, it holds my clothes line. I have been told to blanch them to get rid of the "slimey stuff".

Kathy Smith - June 26, 2010 8:33 PM

Hi! The Opuntia ficus-indica from the Sonoran Desert is amazing with all 24 betalains. I have been reading about the different health benefits with the betalains from the cactus from helping reduce bad cholesterol to supporting healthy blood pressure in addition to helping to reduce inflammation. More research has shown also that the betalains in the cactus help to boost the immune system and protect against pre-aging. Wow! All in a cactus. . There is a drink called Nopalea that has the cactus in it - making it easy to drink. Hope that information helps.

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