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Prickly pear – benefits, uses & side effects

prickly pear
What is prickly pear? Is it good for you? How do you use it and what are the side effects? We reveal all, including its health benefits and nutritional info.

The prickly pear, also referred to as Nopal, that’s used in skincare products comes from the insides of the prickly pear cactus fruit.

The fruit is pear-shaped and comes in different colours, ranging from green, which isn’t very sweet, to red, which is the sweetest.1

Believe it or not, prickly pear, which is related to dragon fruit, is used in lots of different ways.

Not only is its inner goodness used on skin, but you can eat it too.

It’s turned into syrup for cocktails and prickly pear juice and features in lots of Mexican and Southwestern dishes.

You can even make prickly pear fries!

Summary

  • Prickly pears grow on the prickly pear plant, which is part of the cactus family
  • They’re related to dragon fruit
  • You can eat the flesh, which can also be found in skincare products and supplements

Can you eat a prickly pear?

As we’ve just mentioned, despite being part of the cactus family, prickly pear is used in skincare and also features in many a food and drink recipe.2

When it comes to eating them, the outside may be a no-go zone, but if you drill down beneath the spiky exterior, you’ll find the refreshingly juicy flesh inside.

This flesh can be eaten raw, just be careful you don’t get pierced by the fine hair-like splinters that are all over the outside.

To avoid this, either wear thick gloves or use several pieces of paper towel to hold the prickly pear.

Then follow these steps:

How to eat a prickly pear

1

Remove the glochids

(This is the incredibly sharp splinters on the surface of the skin) – hold the fruit over an open flame.

2

Peel the skin off

Use a fork to do this. If the fruit is ripe (not green), the skin should come away easily.

3

Remove the seeds

They are edible, so you can eat them if you’d like to.

4

Slice up the fruit or juice it and enjoy!

You can eat prickly pear fruit raw. It’s also available as tablets, capsules and liquid supplements.3

What does a prickly pear taste like?

Well we’ve already established that it’s nice and juicy and the redder the plants the sweeter they taste, but what do they actually taste like?

Most people describe it as tasting like a mix between watermelon and classic bubble gum.

And the sweet, refreshing flesh happens to be full of vitamins and nutrients that can be used to give both our skin and health a boost.

Prickly pear nutrition

A 100g4 prickly pear fruit contains all of this:

Energy  41kcal
Carbohydrates 9.57g
Protein  0.73g
Fat 0.51g
Cholesterol 0g
Dietary fibre  3g
Folates 6μg
Niacin  0.460mh
Riboflavin  0.060mg
Thiamin  0.014mg
Vitamin C 14mg
Sodium  5mg
Potassium  220mg
Calcium 56mg
Copper 0.080mg
Iron 0.30mg
Magnesium 85mg
Phosphorus 24mg
Zinc 0.12mg

 

Prickly pear fruit provides a combination of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and fibre.

It contains plenty of dietary fibre and around 24% of the Daily Recommended Intake of vitamin C.

Yellow and red prickly pears tend to contain the most vitamin A and carotenes.

In terms of its mineral make-up, it contains plenty of magnesium, closely followed by calcium.

Finally, prickly pear is also recognised as being a source of many vital B-complex group of vitamins, such as riboflavin and niacin.

Summary

  • The inner flesh of the prickly pear fruit is refreshingly juicy
  • To get to it, you have to remove the skin and glochids (fine cactus hairs)
  • Prickly pears are packed full of vitamins and minerals, including fibre, vitamin c and magnesium

What is prickly pear good for?

The prickly pear cactus fruit has been linked to providing a range of beauty and health benefits, 9 of which we’ve listed below:

  1. All-round skincare saviour

Prickly pear is extremely high in essential fatty acids, omega-6 and 9, and the natural antioxidant vitamin E.

It’s also rich in amino acids, which help boost collagen production and cell turnover.

Meanwhile, its vitamin K content helps brighten under-eye dark circles and improve skin appearance.5

  1. Hair hydrator

Given its immense ability to moisturise, prickly pear is increasingly featuring in haircare products.

Its vitamin E content doesn’t just help soften skin, but deep conditions hair.

Meanwhile, the essential fatty acids and protein help restore shine and improve the overall condition of hair.6

  1. Natural hyaluronic acid alternative

Given its cactus status, prickly pear can live in the driest of conditions due to its gel-like flesh containing all the moisture it needs to stay alive.

It also happens to contain polysaccharides that make it highly effective at locking in moisture too.7

  1. Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant

According to a 2019 review of 142 studies carried out on the Opuntia Dillenii species of prickly pear, it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. 

It can help ease gastrointestinal and bronchial inflammation, as proven in research carried out on mice and rats.

Meanwhile, the fresh stems are reported to be highly effective against free radicals due to the fact they contain the compounds, betanin and isobetanin. 8

  1. Weight loss aid

The dietary fibre that’s present in prickly pear fruit reportedly helps with weight loss.

A study carried out on 20 healthy people, who took 500mg of cactus fibre 3 times a day, concluded that the dietary fibre binds to dietary fat.

In turn, this helps increase faecal fat excretion and reduces energy absorption.9

  1. Blood sugar levels

Prickly pear contains the soluble fibre, pectin, which reportedly helps reduce blood sugar.

Research has found that eating prickly pears may reduce fasting blood sugar levels and post-meal insulin levels in healthy adults and those with type 2 diabetes.

However, the same research also reports that study outcomes are mixed in relation to prickly pear’s ability to reduce serum glucose and insulin.10

  1. Liver health

Prickly pear has historically been used to help deal with liver problems due to its antioxidant qualities that may prevent inflammation and oxidative stress.

According to a study carried out on obese rats, eating prickly pear cactus may protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by decreasing oxidative stress.11

  1. Hangover cure

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that prickly pear may help cure hangovers.

A total of 64 young adults were given prickly pear extract or a placebo for 5 hours before drinking 1.75g of alcohol per kilogram of their body weight.

Those who had the prickly pear, experienced fewer hangover symptoms the next day, e.g. sickness, loss of appetite and a dry mouth.12

  1. Cholesterol support

Prickly pear may reduce the cholesterol levels in the blood because of the dietary fibre it contains, which helps minimise bad fat (LDL) cholesterol.

Studies have shown it does this by reducing cholesterol’s plasma and hepatic levels and is therefore capable of controlling hyperlipidaemia, a condition involving high cholesterol levels.13

Prickly pear side effects

Overall, prickly pear is considered safe for people to eat, with very few side effects being linked to it.

However, limited research has been carried out on the long-term effects of consuming it.

The most common side effects are:14

  1. Nausea
  2. Diarrhoea
  3. Bloating
  4. Headaches
  5. Larger stools
  6. Increased bowel movements

Summary

  • The beauty and health benefits associated with prickly pear are widespread
  • They range from intensively hydrating and plumping up skin to balancing blood sugar levels, reducing cholesterol and helping with weight loss

Takeaway

Never underestimate the value of prickly pear.

It may be spiky on the outside, but the inside contains a whole wonderful world of goodness that can deliver multiple beauty and health benefits.

While it may have been somewhat of an unheard of ingredient several years ago, more and more products and supplements containing prickly pear are coming out on the market, giving you plenty more prickly pear options to try!

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 13 October 2021

Sources

  1. https://www.byrdie.com/prickly-pear-oil-benefits#what-is-prickly-pear
  2. https://cactusway.com/how-to-eat-a-cactus-fruit-or-prickly-pear/
  3. https://www.verywellfit.com/the-benefits-of-nopal-89487
  4. https://www.nutrition-and-you.com/prickly-pear.html
  5. https://www.byrdie.com/prickly-pear-oil-benefits#what-is-prickly-pear
  6. https://s-schwartz.com/for-beauty-buyers/prickly-pear-benefits-skin-hair/
  7. https://www.naturalproductsglobal.com/natural-beauty/weleda-takes-inspiration-from-succulents-for-latest-skincare-line/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6461298/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109417/  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6572313/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23014486/
  11. https://www.verywellfit.com/the-benefits-of-nopal-89487
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8207539/
  13.   https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8207539/
  14. https://www.verywellfit.com/the-benefits-of-nopal-89487#possible-side-effects
 

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