Why You Should Eat Cactus: 6 Powerful Benefits of Nopales

If you don’t already like to eat cactus, you’re going to want to start after you hear about the fascinating health benefits of nopales. 

Nopales are a very healthy vegetable: they are a good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium. Nopales may also offer health benefits like lowering blood sugar, lowering cholesterol, and providing antioxidants. 

But this isn’t the only reason my clients love cactus (I’m a Latina dietitian and I mostly work with Latinas). Cactus, or nopal, is one of the vegetables that makes Mexican food so special.

Whenever my clients tell me they’re not sure if Mexican food is healthy, I remind them of foods like nopales to show the amazing vegetables we have in our cuisine.

In today’s blog post we’ll do a full dive into all of the health benefits of nopales. This includes comparing the nutrients of canned, dried, and fresh nopales. Finally, I’ll share my thoughts on supplements and functional foods with nopales added. 

So if you’re curious how nopales can benefit you, keep reading!

cactus paddle on blue background. text reads why you should eat cactus - 6 health benefits of nopales

What are nopales?

Nopales are the edible leaves (or paddles) of the prickly pear cactus. While all of the prickly pear leaves are technically edible, we tend to just harvest the youngest paddles for food. Prickly pear cacti also have edible fruits (called prickly pear or “tuna” in Spanish). 

The leaves and the fruit are quite different from each other in terms of nutrition. So for today’s blog post we’ll focus on just the nopales (cactus paddles). Keep an eye out for another blog post on the nutrition of prickly pear fruits (tuna). 

Nopales are a common food source across Mexico, as well as in the Southwestern United States. They are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. You’ll find nopales grilled, in salads, added to scrambled eggs, or even in juices and smoothies. 

In addition to being a very healthy vegetable (more on that below), nopales are an economical and sustainable food source. Nopales are very drought tolerant, and require minimal water to grow (1). 

Prickly pear cacti grow wild in most of the United States and Mexico–not just the desert (1). These plants could make a nice addition to a vegetable garden for home gardeners, as they require minimal care and can produce both fruit and vegetables. 

Nutrition Facts

Nopales are a common vegetable in Mexican food, as well as in parts of the Southwestern United States. To begin our discussion on the health benefits of nopales, I’ve pulled the nutrition facts for three different serving methods of nopales (fresh, dried, and pickled). 

I also want to note that juice is another common way to eat nopales. I couldn’t find verified nutrition facts for nopal juice. But I will comment on this a little more in the health benefits section of this post. 


1 cup of raw nopales provide the following nutrients (2): 

Calories14 kcal
Carbohydrates3 g
Fiber2 g
Protein1 g
Fat0.1 g
Calcium14% daily needs
Potassium10% daily needs
Vitamin C11% daily needs
Vitamin K6% daily needs
Vitamin A3% daily needs


Since dried nopal is used in food products like tortillas, chips, and more, I thought it’d be worthwhile to take a look at the nutrition facts for dried nopales. 

Note that the serving size for dried nopal is significantly smaller. 

A 3 g serving of dried nopal powder (approximately ¾ teaspoon) provides the following nutrients (3):

Calories6 kcal
Carbohydrates1.5 g
Fiber0.4 g
Protein0.16 g
Fat0.1 g
Calcium13% daily needs
Potassium4% daily needs


For pickled (jarred or canned) nopales, I couldn’t find a nutrient database entry. I could, however, find the nutrition facts label for a popular brand of pickled nopales. 

A standard nutrition label will only provide information on certain vitamins and minerals, however, so keep in mind this information may be incomplete. 

One 130 g serving of jarred nopales provides the following nutrients (4): 

Calories40 kcal
Carbohydrates9 g
Fiber5 g
Protein<1 g
Fat0.1 g
Sodium1210 mg

While this nutrition label doesn’t have information on the vitamins and minerals in pickled nopales, we do know that canning vegetables tends to preserve vitamins A and E (5). 

Since fresh nopales are a source of vitamin A, then we can conclude canned nopales are most likely a source of vitamin A, as well. 


I couldn’t find a verifiable source of nutrition facts for nopal juice. But I wanted to address it because jugo verde (green juice) with nopales is a very common way to consume nopales in Mexican culture. 

The nutrition facts for nopal juice will be very similar to fresh nopales, except most (if not all) of the fiber will be removed. This is important for anyone who is watching their blood sugar, since fiber is important for managing blood sugar.

If you consume the juice quickly after juicing, most of the vitamins and minerals will be intact. 

Health Benefits

The prickly pear cactus has a long history in traditional Mexican medicine, as well. Mexican traditional medicine uses nopal for wound healing, diabetes treatment, lowering cholesterol, and as an antiviral treatment (6). 

For many of these claims, we simply don’t have enough evidence yet to say if they’re true. However, researchers are interested in nopal and are studying it more and more. 

illustration of cactus with description of nopales health benefits surrounding it

Here are 6 health benefits of nopales we have begun to uncover: 

  • Lower blood sugar (7). Consuming nopales was associated with lower blood sugar in a systematic review of 12 studies. These effects were seen in people with and without type 2 diabetes. This blood-sugar lowering effect is most likely due to the high fiber content.
  • Prevent oxidative stress (8): Nopales have high levels of antioxidants, which can prevent oxidative stress and DNA damage that lead to cancer (9).  
  • Reduce cholesterol (10): One study intervention saw a reduction in total cholesterol after giving participants 375 g of boiled nopales per day (a little over 3 cups). This is likely due to the gel-like pectin found in nopales. 
  • Promotes healthy gut bacteria (11): One study analyzed the gut bacteria of participants after introducing nopales into the diet. They found an increase in healthy gut bacteria that may be associated with lower inflammation and blood lipids (like cholesterol). 

So promoting healthy gut bacteria may be another way nopales are good for your blood sugar and your cholesterol. 

  • Helps fight fatty liver: Early studies in mice show that nopales may reduce signs of fatty liver disease (12). More research is needed on this front, however. 
  • Antimicrobial activity (13): Cactus extract may help fight certain bacteria associated with food poisoning.  

Are nopales a superfood?

There’s no one definition to what is a superfood and what isn’t. However, nopales are an incredibly healthy food that offer a lot of health benefits and a high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

What about supplements?

Whenever a food with as many health benefits as nopal becomes more well-known, the supplement industry is quick to follow.

But nopal supplements have been popular in Mexico for a while, as well! As a dietitian, I always recommend a food-first strategy. 

The supplement industry is not well-regulated, so it’s difficult to say for sure if the supplement you are getting is really what it says, or if it’s safe. Overall, I don’t recommend nopal supplements. 

New food products with nopal

Some foods are now adding powdered nopal into their products in an effort to claim some of the health benefits of nopal for their products. 

You may see tortillas with nopales added into the masa, nopal chips, and more. 

One study looked at the health benefits of tortillas enhanced with nopal, and found they were higher in fiber and antioxidants than regular tortillas (14). 

If you are wanting to incorporate these types of nopal products into your diet, think of them as a way to help you choose healthier carb sources. Do not think of these types of products as a substitute for vegetables. 

How to start adding nopales into your diet

The most popular ways to eat nopales include as a juice, grilled, or with scrambled eggs. You can also experiment with some of the new nopal foods on the market like nopal tortillas, but remember these don’t replace vegetables on your plate. 

One easy way to add nopales into your diet is with this easy nopal smoothie:

Nopal smoothie with cucumber and pineapple
This nopal smoothie is so refreshing with cucumber and pineapple added.
Check out this recipe
nopal smoothie with cucumber

Final thoughts

As you can see, nopales have an incredible number of health benefits to offer, including lowering cholesterol, blood sugar, and more. 

They are a great way to add more vegetables into your diet, and show the versatility and nutrition of Mexican cuisine. 

As a Latina dietitian, I help my clients find healthy meals that celebrate their culture. If you are looking for help building healthy meals with your favorite Latino foods, be sure to sign up for my free Latino meal planning tool below. 


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