A closer look at the prickly pear

2 Jan

By: Jessica Ingram


Image courtesy of Candice Mathers.

Many of us have spotted an item that is a little out of the ordinary in the produce aisle. I recently noticed the “prickly pear” fruit in a small basket display at a Zehr’s supermarket and was curious about what this spine-ridden fruit has to offer.

The prickly pear, also known as a cactus pear, is a berry fruit that flourishes on the perennial Opuntia cactus (Kuti, 2004). The fruit has a relatively high sugar content and low acidity, allowing for a light, sweet flavour similar to a honey-dew melon, with the density and seed content resembling dragonfruit (Stintzing, 2001). These cacti are typically found in arid or semi-arid climates such as the Southwestern United States (Hegwood, 1990). Interestingly, the rare and at risk species of Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus can be found at the most southern tip of Canada (Parks Canada, 2009).

The fruit of the Opuntia cacti can range from yellow to purple in colour, and blossoms on the cactus pads (nopales) (Hegwood, 1990). The nopales have historically been used for medicinal purposes such as treating diabetes mellitus in areas of Spanish origin (Hegwood, 1990). Researchers have reported that adding cactus pads to standard Mexican breakfasts resulted in lower blood glucose levels 15-120 minutes after the meal (Bacardi-Gascon, 2007).

The prickly pear fruit itself is a potent source of nutrients and phytochemicals (phyto=plant), which have demonstrated roles in maintaining health. The fruit is low in sodium, fat and contains no cholesterol or saturated fat (USDA, 2012). One cup of raw prickly pear contains approximately 61 calories, 5.4 g of fibre, 83 mg of calcium, 20.9 mg of vitamin C 328 mg of potassium and 127mg of magnesium (USDA, 2012). Trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin and niacin are also present (Stintzing, 2001). A study measuring phytochemical antioxidant extracts from four cactus fruit varieties found that ascorbic acid was most prevalent in the red-skinned fruits, carotenoids in the yellow-skinned, and all antioxidant activity was stronger in the purple-skinned fruits (Kuti, 2004).

The prickly pear is a heavily seeded fruit with a thick outer skin. It takes time to remove the spines and smaller hair-like prickles, known as glochids, which can cause digestive discomfort (Kuti, 2004). Luckily, most supermarkets will sell the fruit already prepared with the spines removed. The fruit can be eaten fresh by halving it and scooping out the pulp, dried, preserved in jams, or processed into candies (Kuti, 2004). With yeast fermentation, its juice can also be added to alcoholic drinks, or as food colourants (Kuti, 2004; Stintzing, 2001). The sheer versatility of this fruit is impressive, despite its odd appearance.

Although more human research is needed to assess its potential as a functional food, the prickly pear holds promise. Incorporating fruits high in antioxidant and phytochemical compounds as part of a healthy diet may help to protect against cardiovascular diseases and cancer. So, the next time you are at the supermarket, maybe take a chance and try something new!


Kuti, J.O. (2004). Antioxidant compounds from four Opuntia cactus pear fruit varieties.  Food Chemistry, 85, 527-533.

Hegwood, D.A. (1990). Human Health Discoveries with Opuntia sp. (Prickly Pear). HortScience, 25(12), 1515-1516.

Bacardi-Gascon, M.,Duenas-Mena, D., Jimenez-Cruz, A.(2007). Lowering Effect on Postprandial Glycemic Response of Nopales Added to Mexican Breakfasts. Diabetes Care, 30(5), 1264-1265.

Parks Canada. (2009). Species at Risk: Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus. Retrieved from: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/nature/eep-sar/itm3/eep-sar3d.aspx

Stintzing, F.C., Schieber, A., Carle, R.(2001). Phytochemical and nutritional significance of cactus pear. European Food Research and Technology, 212, 396-407.

Tourney, A. (2011). Prickly Pear Health Benefits. Livestrong Foundation.   Retrieved from: http://www.livestrong.com/article/408943-prickly-pear-health-benefits/

USDA. (2012) Nutrient Data Laboratory; Nutrient Data for 09287, Prickly pears, raw. Retrieved from: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2376, Date accessed: December 13th, 2012.


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