Health Benefits of Nopal Powder
April 13th, 2016
What makes Nopal Powder so special?
There are many supposed natural cures for regular ailments available on the market, but one in particular has been shown to improve health in several different regards for those who take it. In fact, it has been taken for centuries for its health benefits as part of a regular diet and is still regularly consumed in the American southwest and Latin America. Like many natural products Nopal has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration yet, but numerous clinical studies show very positive results in subjects given Nopal as part of their diet. Through clinical studies involving both laboratory rodents and human test subjects scientists are beginning to confirm the natural disease-fighting properties of the Nopal. As more studies are conducted the health benefits of reducing fat, insulin, blood pressure and blood sugars, as well as promoting better bone health are more apparent.
The Nopal has been consumed regularly for generations and is still being eaten in several different areas in the world including some areas of the United States. The plant has originated from Latin America and has had its influence spread across the globe. The Nopal is both a regular staple in some cultures as well as celebrated as a unique culinary addition by many professional chefs. While the consumption of Nopal is generally due to cultural norms and/or a pursuit of its health benefits, the Prickly Pear is also used to prepare novelty culinary items such as drinks, deserts, and snacks. It has also appeared in various areas of pop culture in many different parts of the world over the years as its influence has spread from a simple plant to a celebrated fruit.
Worldwide demand for the Nopal as a food has become high enough that farmers have stopped shipping and distributing the live plant outside of its immediate areas of growth. As a result it is far more common to find the plant canned, jarred, or in a powdered dehydrated state to be purchased and consumed by buyers in shopping markets and ethic shopping areas1. As the Nopal has many topical uses it will be more readily available as more studies are conducted on to the many benefits of its use.
Variations of Nopal
There are many different species of cactus in the Opuntia Cacti family. The most common variety of Nopal Cactus is Nopal Verde, or the Prickly Pear. The Prickly Pear originated from the volcanic mountains of Mexico and was used by the Aztecs, Native Americans, Zacatecans, Tepehuanes, Chichimecs, Coras, and other early cultures6. Nopal Cactus is also known as the “Prickly Pear”, “Indian Fig”, or “Barbary Fig”. The fruit of the Nopal, the “Prickly Pear”, is referred to as the tuna of the fruit and can be eaten like other fruit or taken in other forms. There are over 350 varieties of the fruit and it is rich in magnesium, tuarine, flavoids, and antioxidants. “Nopal” comes from the Nahuatl word nohpalli which refers to the pads or paddles of the plant and about 140 species are found in Mexico alone1. The Nopal is both a fruit and a vegetable. The Prickly Pear portion is considered a fruit, whereas the paddle, or nopalito, is considered a vegetable.
How is Nopal prepared?
The Nopal is typically consumed either raw or cooked, used for marmalades, soups, stews, salads, and has also been traditionally used as medicine and fed to animals. Cooking preparation generally includes either boiling the tuna or grilling it, and the leaves, stems, and flowers are also edible. They are consumed as part of a traditional Mexican breakfast dish called heuvos con nopales, as well as other meals such as carne con nopales, tacos de nopales, in salads with tomato, onion, and queso panela, or as simply a side vegetable. The Nopal is even a regular staple in New Mexico and Texas cuisines.
To prepare the Nopal tuna the spines are cleaned off of the exterior of the plant and then sliced or cubed. The taste is a slight tart flavor like that of a green bean and it has a crisp malleable texture like okra. The tuna is at its peak ripeness in the spring and is picked until summer. The Nopal has also been used in making candy, jellies, ice creams, and margaritas, but these are made more for a novelty treat than for any expected health benefits. It is a celebrated culinary staple and can also be found in omelets, salsas, and brewed in teas as well as featured in various culinary creations by chefs all around the world.
Nopal used as treatment
The Nopal has several topical uses for minor first aid treatment. When boiled and combined with honey like a hot tea it can be used to treat respiratory tract infections. Eating the tuna has been a method of treating arteriosclerosis, diarrhea and a sore throat for generations. The Nopal paddles have traditionally been used as primitive heating pads to treat swelling, muscle pains, aches, and dressing cuts, burns, and bruises. A laxative can be made by grinding or pureeing the Prickly Pear while it is still young. A paste can be created from the fruit to treat toothaches. Finally, the sap of the Nopal is used as a topical pain reliever as well as a skin moisturizer.
More commonly outside of a food capacity the Nopal can be found as a powder or capsule health supplement. Many sellers provide Nopal capsule supplements with health benefit claims. While the Nopal is a natural source of many health benefits consumers need to ensure that the supplement being purchased is a natural product and not one containing many different fillers or chemicals. Doing so could actually be detrimental to their health rather than benefiting them.
The use of Nopal throughout history
The indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America first started consuming Nopal in the Pre-Columbian period of history, going back thousands of years as far as 65 B.C. Historians have found evidence of Nopal use by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors in journals and official correspondences to their leaders. In addition to using Nopal as food the Aztecs also used it as a building material, a glue, as firewood, mortar, stiffening cloth, and for religious rituals.
The Aztecs and the Mayans used the Nopal as a red dye and this became popular enough that it was Mexico’s second largest export behind silver. Nopal is still used in dye production to this day for food coloring and for cosmetics. As red dyes have shown an increasing amount of health concerns the desire for natural dyes has renewed interest and is mostly produced in Peru, the Canary Islands, and Chile.
Nopal featured in the media
In more recent times the Nopal has seen its place in pop culture in films such as Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book and the song “Gaucho” by Steely Dan. The Nopal is featured on the Mexican flag and was featured on the coat of arms of Malta until 1988. Although the plant originated in Latin America it can be found as far as Australia and as far north as Canada. It has been used by many cultures such as the Israelis and Cubans as a symbol of tenacity and strength in addition to flags and coat of arms. The Prickly Pear spread to the Moors, the Mediterranean, and North Africa after the Spanish took the plant from Mexico back to Spain.
The Nopal was originally seen as a symbol of life and rebirth. This is due to dead and fallen leaves, or pencas, give birth to new Nopal plants. In Mexican myths the first Nopal grew out of the heart of Copil, the son of the god of the moon Malinalxochitl and Chimalcuauhtli. Copil attempted to murder his uncle, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, for abandoning his mother but was defeated instead. The day following Copil’s burial the first Nopal appeared covered in the thorns of a warrior and the flowers that bloomed from Copil’s love for his mother. It is said that when the Aztecs found the Prickly Pear for the first time an eagle was on top of it devouring a serpent, as depicted on Mexico’s flag.
What type of health benefits does Nopal offer?
Nopal is a low calorie fruit that is high in vitamin C, calcium, and potassium and low in sodium with no cholesterol or saturated fat. The fruit is high in fiber and has been shown to lower cholesterol levels in its users. Nopal is used in treating diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders like ulcers, some liver problems, low immune systems, and reduces high blood pressure and blood glucose levels. The exact daily nutritional values, DV, of Nopal per one U.S. cup serving are: manganese, 20% DV; vitamin C, 13% DV; magnesium, 11% DV; calcium, 14% DV. An extract of Nopal has also been used to reduce the symptoms of alcohol-induced hangovers such as nausea, dry mouth, and anorexia.
Vitamin and Nutrient elements
The Nopal has many other vitamins and nutrients that make it a candidate to be considered a “superfood”. The Prickly Pear has 18 amino acids: Alanine, Arginine, Aspartic Acid, Cystine, Glutamic Acid, Glycine, Histidine, Leucine, Isoleucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Proline, Serine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Tyrosine, and Valine. The plant has 10 total minerals: Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Sodium, and Zinc. In addition to vitamin C, Vitamin A, Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pyridoxine (B6), Vitamin E, and Folate can be found in the plant as well.
Although more clinical trials are needed for more definite findings, Nopal has been compared to other calcium supplements which may: reduce the risk of osteoporosis; reduce the risk of colon and/or rectal cancers; reduce the risk of colon/rectal polyps; and reduce the risk of hypertension and preeclampsia caused by pregnancy when taken as part of a regular diet regimen. While more data is needed, a 2013 study found that adult Mexican women who consumed dehydrated Nopal along with high calcium content improved their bone mineral density which helps prevent osteoporosis. The subjects saw the biggest improvements in bone mineral density in their hips and lumbar area spine regions, especially among the test subjects who were premenopausal.
A study in 2011 found that Nopal dietary fiber promoted the expression of colon receptors in laboratory test rats when fed a diet comprised of 5% DV of fiber which lead to better colonic conditions in the test subjects. In patients with type 2 diabetes clinical studies have shown an increase in antioxidant activity in both healthy people and diabetics, and it is inferred that Nopal can also reduce postprandial blood glucose, serum insulin, and plasma GIP peaks. Test rats fed Nopal had lower serum insulin concentration than the test group that was not fed Nopal. Another study showed that the test group given Nopal had a lower concentration of insulin than the control group who was not given Nopal but was still obese.
In gastrointestinal diseases studies have shown that consuming Nopal can prevent some forms of food contamination-borne illnesses, as well as treating gut tract disorders associated with the microorganisms of contaminations. When obese test specimens were fed Nopal for seven weeks the subjects experienced a 50% reduction in triglycerides and a reduction of hepatomegaly and biomarkers of hepatocyte injury. Other animals fed Nopal saw higher rates of lipid peroxidation, lipid export and reductions in triglycerides from their livers. A second study showed that the test group given Nopal saw a reduction in lipid droplet count and a reduction in the LDL cholesterol than the control group who was not given Nopal.
Staple food for the North, Central and South Americans
Nopal has been used for generations and after extensive clinical observation has shown numerous health benefits to those who regularly take it as part of their diet. Nopal and its effects are most potent when consumed raw but the health benefits are still observed when it is taken in its dehydrated forms. This explains why the food was not only regularly consumed by Native peoples in the North, Central, and South Americas but why it is still regularly consumed as part of a regular diet in many cultures in the American southwest, as well as Central and South America.
Even though the first documented use of Nopal was back in 65 B.C. the Prickly Pear has been celebrated around the globe for its taste, its health benefits, and its appearance. Whether it is being prepared as an upscale restaurant dish or as a novelty treat many chefs around the world prepare it in a variety of dishes and drinks, as well as deserts. For years the Nopal has been a symbol of strength for many different people, from the Middle East to Latin America. The plant has even been spread to Australia where its American southwest-like climate made it a prime candidate to begin growing it. Even though it thrives in more arid areas of the world it has been grown in Canada for many years.
Nopal are used as food for live stock to materials used to build homes.
The Nopal has been enjoyed for generations and continues to live on as a beloved source of food and health in many different regions across the world. It is a versatile plant assisting people from all around the globe by being prepared for meals, being used as medicine, being a source of food for cattle and other livestock, a building, material, and other constructive uses. Its healing properties are now seriously being studied for potential pharmaceutical applications and have already been used to assist in lowering glucose and lipid levels in bloodstreams.
Is Nopal right for you?
Although Nopal has not yet been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration numerous clinical testing has confirmed the health properties of the Prickly Pear when taken as part of a regular diet. Whether it is being consumed raw or in a dehydrated state it has clinically been shown to reduce health concerns in test subjects suffering from obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, fatty liver diseases, gut tract infections, and high cholesterol. Originating thousands of years ago in Latin America it is obvious as to why the Nopal has been seen all around the world in many different cultures as a symbol of toughness and strength.