These cactus vegetables can make for a wonderful addition to your daily meals. If you ever watched the TV show naked and afraid, the participants would argue strongly that a cactus is indeed a healthy vegetable. I’ve seen on multiple shows where the contestants have lived off of cactus for 21 days straight. But let’s get serious and go deeper into the facts. We will explore the idea of whether a cactus can truly be considered a vegetable.
What is the Cactus?
A cactus is a plant that has a fleshy and succulent stem covered by thorns. The spikes or thorns on the body help the plant preserve water as much as possible and protect itself from predators.
Cacti are mostly found in arid and semi-arid areas of America. Also, a large number of cacti are available in desert regions of North and South America. But the most number of cactus species are present in Mexico.
Many of the cacti are flowery as well. Cacti belong to one of the largest families of the plant world, which is Cactaceae. These plants grow well in dry areas with shallow roots to quickly absorb water when it rains. However, they mostly rely on sunlight for their growth and nourishment.
As cactus plants are highly drought tolerant and can conserve water, they are appropriate for low-maintenance landscaping in hot and dry regions of America, which is also known as xeriscaping.
Can You Eat Cactus?
Not all the cactus are edible, but many of them are healthy and tasty snacks for humans. In fact, different parts of cacti are consumed as food, including its seeds, fruits, pads, and even flowers.
We take or consume some popular varieties of cactus fruits quite often but may not know that they are cactus. Some of these fruits are prickly pears, dragon fruit, and saguaro fruit, which people eat as fruit or consume their liquid beverages and jams.
Cactus flowers, including species like agave, have culinary uses and are added to salads or as used garnishes. While it sounds a little unusual, these thorny and waxy plants act as a major food source in many parts of the world.
Keep in mind that only a small section of Cacti are edible, and the majority of cacti are toxic to humans. Therefore, it’s important to correctly identify any cactus before ingesting it. Besides, glochids or small, hair-like spines also pose a hazard and must be carefully removed.
Is Cactus a Vegetable or Fruit?
Some cacti are consumed as fruit, and some are vegetables. For example, the flashy green pads of prickly pear cactus are eaten as stable vegetables in Mexico and other regions.
The red-colored tuna in the same prickly pear cactus is eaten as fruit. So, the vegetables and fruits can emerge from the same cactus, which is very rarely seen in other plants.
The vegetables in cactus, the flat green pads, are commonly known as nopales. These vegetables taste crunchy and lemony, similar to bell peppers and green beans. While these pads remain stripe-covered in the plant, the spikes are removed before selling them.
Not only are they edible as fruit and vegetables, but they also have nutritional benefits. For example, cactus pads or nopales are a great source of dietary fiber.
A cup of cooked nopales contains around 10 grams of fiber, helping support digestive health. Therefore, these foods are gaining popularity in the American diet list for their health-related advantages.
What are the Health Benefits of Cactus?
Cactus pads, also known as nopales, are fiber-rich, and fiber greatly helps in digestion. Apart from fiber, nopales are also a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, K, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
These vitamins and minerals support improving immunity, bone health, and heart condition. A high volume of vitamin C in prickly pear fruit and pads boosts and maintains a healthy immune system.
Besides, nopales can be an alternative diet for high blood sugar patients as fiber-rich foods are good at controlling and keeping blood sugar low. Additionally, the fiber and nutrients in nopales promote feelings of fullness and may support weight loss and maintenance.
According to a study, nopales of cactus are effective in lowering cholesterol levels, especially the “bad” LDL cholesterol. This is significant because high LDL cholesterol can be harmful to your health. Nopal cactus might help reduce cholesterol without causing as many side effects as regular cholesterol medications.
Some cactus flowers are also taken as food for their health benefit. These flowers contain flavonoids, which are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are excellent in reducing chronic disease and support the immune system, too. Some cactus seeds are also eaten by many and are rich in protein, healthy fats, and vitamins.
What are Some Edible Cacti?
Not all the cacti are healthy for eating. Some cacti can be toxic and cause different health complications like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. if eaten as food. These include species like the Saguaro and Barrel cactus.
So you’ve got to be careful and specific that you are only consuming the edible ones. To help you choose the right cacti for eating, we have chosen a list of popular and healthy edible cacti. Here are they:
Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus is probably the most common variety of cactus served, especially in Mexican cuisine. You can also find its juices, jams, and candies worldwide. Prickly pear cacti have a sweet and melon-like flavor.
Surprisingly, prickly pear cactus is a source of both vegetables and fruits, both of which are rich in nutritional value. You will often find these without spikes in the market. With the spiky ones, you need to handle and remove the glochids carefully, and all the spines must be thoroughly removed before consumption.
Dragon fruit is another popular type of fruit that comes from a cactus. While this fruit mostly originates in South America, it is now found throughout the world as a tropical fruit. This fruit not only tastes sweet but looks amazing on the dining table.
There are different varieties of dragon fruit, each with its own color and texture. Common varieties include red, white, and yellow pitaya. The flowers and stems are not typically eaten, but the fruit can be consumed raw, added to smoothies, made into sorbet, etc.
Peruvian Apple Cactus
The Peruvian Apple Cactus has fruits that taste like strawberries or dragonfruit. After being ripe, the oval-shaped red fruit becomes suitable to consume. However, the other parts should be avoided, such as steps and leaves, as they can be toxic to humans if ingested.
The fruit can be eaten raw, made into jam, added to desserts, or juiced. It provides nutrients such as vitamin C, calcium, and antioxidants.
Cholla Cactus Buds
This cactus has edible buds and fruit, and other parts of the cholla should not be eaten. However, the buds of all cholla are not actually healthy and suitable to eat. Some popular edible varieties include jumping, golden, and pencil cholla.
Other cholla species may be too toxic. Remember, these cacti are normally covered with sharp spikes and thorns. You have to remove them carefully to eat the inner portion of the cholla.
Many cacti are well-known fruits that we may all know. However, not all the cactus are edible, either as fruits or vegetables. Out of all the cactus varieties, only a selection of cactus is eaten as vegetables in different parts of the world. The rest of the cacti are inedible for being toxic or simply not digestible at all.
Even making an inedible cactus safe for consumption often requires extensive preparation methods, such as removing spines and toxic components through cooking or other processes. So, before proceeding to consume any cactus, be sure it is safe to eat.