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By: Yolanda Bertaud

One of my favorite south of the boarder foods is prepared quick & easy and loaded with nutrients, and taste delisioso… nopalitos! Nopalitos are the edible young paddles of the prickly pear cactus, grown throughout native Mexico. It is has been noted that the Nopales was grown and eaten as a vegetable in Central Mexico, since before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish explorers took the plant back to Spain and the plant spread throughout North Africa with the Moors. The plant is currently grown throughout Mexico as well as parts of the United States and in many areas of the Mediterranean. The paddles are widely available in Mexican markets in the U.S., either whole (with spines) or prepared (cleaned, spines removed, chopped). They are tasty cooked, and are used in many traditional Mexican dishes.

When I make nopales salad with fresh made corn tortillas, I like to keep it “All Vegetarian” to really enjoy all the mouth watering flavors & nutritional benefits. Adding nopales to your diet, you may be able to lower high blood pressure and improve your cholesterol, and diabetes, along with a well balanced diet. It’s low in sodium (only 18 mg sodium in each cup of raw leaves), high in potassium (each cup of raw nopales has 221 mg potassium). Nopales are very rich in insoluble and especially soluble dietary fiber. They are also rich in vitamins (especially vitamin Avitamin C, and vitamin K, but also riboflavin and vitamin B6) and minerals (especially magnesiumpotassium, and manganese, but also iron and copper). Nopales have a high calcium content, but the nutrient is not biologically available because it is present as calcium oxalate, which is neither highly soluble nor easily absorbed through the intestinal wall. Addition of nopales also reduces the glycemic effect of a mixed meal. Nopales are low carbohydrate and may help in the treatment of diabetes.

Here are more detail…

  • Diabetes – Stabilizes Blood sugar

Nopal cactus contains a large amount of slowly-digestible fiber and tends to slow down the digestion of foods when it is taken just before or with a meal. The cactus has the effect of lowering the Glycemic Index. (In the “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” in 1995 finding the cactus extracts caused a significant decrease in blood glucose values by almost 18 percent. The Calzada Tecnologico in Baja California also discovered that adding nopal to traditional high-carbohydrate Mexican meals among patients with Type 2 diabetes induced a reduction in glucose concentration after the meal).

  • Lowers Cholesterol

The fiber and sterols in Nopal bind with a bile salt in the intestines, which helps limit the amount of blood fats cholesterol and triglycerides absorbed by the body, thereby lowering blood cholesterol levels. (In studies led by Dr. Maria L. Fernandez in California and published in the “Journal of Nutrition,” prickly pear pectin decreased LDL concentrations and led to a 28 percent drop in total cholesterol levels. Furthermore, Mexican researchers found that animals fed raw nopal had lower weight gains and a 34 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels).

  • Scrubs Blood Vessels

Plaques are areas of inflammation that form on the walls of the blood vessels, where they trap blood fats that can harden or even block the arteries. Nopal cactus sterols, along with its polyphenols and glycoproteins, serve as antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and keep plaques from forming.

  • Sweeps the Colon

The insoluble plant fibers in Nopal cactus provide dietary roughage, which make it easier to maintain bowel regularity. Nopal also contains soluble plant fiber, which helps absorb toxins, including carcinogens, as it sweeps the colon clean.

  • Soothes the Stomach

Nopal contains a high amount of mucilage, which helps balance the pH of the stomach and soothes the stomach lining. Tests have shown that Nopal stimulates the healing of stomach ulcers and reduces stomach inflammation.

  • Protects the Liver

Because Nopal contains antioxidant flavonoids, it helps neutralize free radicals before they can overtax the liver. It also helps absorb toxins, decreasing the liver’s load. By supporting the liver, it frees that organ to balance bodily functions, including the immune system.

  • Hangovers and Obesity

Nopal is sometimes used to help counteract the effects of alcohol consumption. It helps rehydrate the body, soothes the stomach, and improves liver function, thereby preventing the headache, stomach ache and toxic “morning after” feeling. When taken before meals, Nopal’s roughage can help create a sensation of fullness that may help prevent overeating and helps stabilize the blood sugar, to ward off hunger. Nopal cactus also contributes calcium and valuable amino acids and other nutrients. 

How To Harvest And Prepare Noaples (Nopalitos)

Small young pads harvested in early spring are thought to be the most succulent, delicate in flavor, and have the fewest spines. The thicker a pad, the older it is. Commercially two sizes of nopales pads are harvested which is small, (less than 10 cm long) or (medium less than 20 cm, about 100g). The Nopales leaf pads are usually harvested between spring and the end of summer. Select thin pads no longer than 20cm or 8 inches. Make sure to wear heavy gloves to harvest the pads yourself. The pad will snap off easily using tongs or you can use a large knife to sever the stem. Beware, there are large and fine thorns so be sure to keep your hands protected. To prepare the pads remove the thorns and the “eyes” with a vegetable peeler or a small paring knife. Wash the pads well with cool water and peel or trim off any blemished or discolored areas. Slice the pads in long slices or in pieces depending on the dish you will prepare.
  • The Prickly Pear Fruit is also delisioso! You can make an excellent salsa/cocktail margarita to compliment your nopales salad. Will provide a post on just the fruit later…

Nopales SaladYolanda’s Nopales Salad Recipe…


  • 1 pound nopalitos, nopales prickly pear cactus paddles that have been stripped of spines, cleaned, and chopped, or a large jar of prepared nopales purchased at your local hispanic supermarket.
  • 1 sliced avocado
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 half bunch cilantro – chopped
  • olive oil
  • 1 – 2 jalapeno peppers – deveined and chopped
  • cumin, salt, pepper, to taste
  • 1 red onion – chopped
  • 1 – 2 cloves of garlic – chopped
  • 1 fresh tomato – diced
  • (optional) Queso Fresco – Very popular among many people of Mexican descent due to its fine-grained texture. It is often used to crumble over salads or put in refried beans.
  • Fresh homemade corn tortillas – Maize Corn Tortillas

How to Prepare:

  • If the nopales you buy do not already have the thorns removed, do so carefully. I recommend using gloves and a potato peeler to do this. (see video)
  • Once you have removed all thorns, wash and chop the nopales, place in a pan with water, add a little salt and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes. For Raw Foodest – you can eat this Raw! (If you purchase a jar of already prepared nopales, then all you have to do is “drained and rinsed”)…
  • Drain nopales and add & mix remaining ingredients.
  • Add cheese on top (optional) & place into a heated corn tortillas. Yum! 😀

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