Desert Foods for Healthy Living

Cactus

Prickly pear cactus pad, or nopalitos, and fruit, or tunas, can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. When you cut open the inside of a cactus pad you can see the sticky, almost soapy, gooey pectin. The gooey inner substance of the pad helps the cactus hold onto the water it needs for survival in the dry desert. Within the body, this process is mimicked and the gooey inner substance of cacti acts to slow down digestion and absorption of sugars, thereby lowering blood sugar levels. The high amounts of fiber also lower cholesterol, perhaps binding with fats and passing them undigested out of the intestinal tract.

Prickly pear is easy to grow (just stick a paddle from an established plant in the ground), and can be wild harvested. It is also available fresh in Mexican supermarkets or jarred in most supermarkets in the Southwest. The young tender pads can be snapped off the plants, singed or peeled to remove the spines. Numerous varieties produce edible pads but Opuntia ficus indica is the most commonly consumed species. They can be eaten raw in salads or smoothies, or more traditionally boiled and drained or sautéed. Other cactus foods with similar blood sugar lowering effect like prickly pear pads include cholla buds, which are the unopened flowers of the cholla cactus. The staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) has fewer spines and larger buds, and is the preferred variety for wild harvesting. After gathering in the spring, the spines must be removed. They can either be cooked like other vegetables (they have a flavor somewhat similar to asparagus), added to soups, or dried to be reconstituted for later cooking.

Raw fruits from prickly pear, saguaro, barrel, and organ pipe cacti contain the same special starches as prickly pear pads. Cactus fruits are high in antioxidants, vitamins A and C. Prickly pear fruits in particular contain high amounts of juice which can be extracted using a blender, and then strained. However, once the juices are boiled down into syrup, or made into juice or jam, the natural sugars in the fruit become more concentrated and “processed,” and affect the body much like refined sugar. Limit processed preparations. Many commercially available prickly pear fruit products also contain high amounts of added sugar. Fruits of prickly pear are harvested in late July thru August, and Saguaro fruits in June.

Recipe guide for prickly pear fruits and nopales (pdf) and for cholla buds (pdf)

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