Prickly Pear is Nutritious and Delicious

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When I was in California over the summer, an Israeli friend of mine introduced me to the prickly pear. Actually, he introduced me to sabras, as it’s known in Israel, and it wasn’t until he asked me if it was good for you, which led me to do some research, that I discovered that it’s the same thing as prickly pear.

Interesting to note; sabras is also a slang term for native Israelis (I don’t think it’s derogatory, although I’m not sure about that so you should be careful before you start throwing that one around). It symbolizes how – similar to the fruit – Israelis tend to be hard on the outside but sweet on the inside. It’s not a derogatory term :-)

The funny thing about the prickly pear is that it doesn’t look edible from the outside. It’s the fruit of a particular type of cactus and it grows on the outside edge of the leaf. It appears to be a spiky red bulb about the size of an avocado. I don’t know who figured out you could eat these things, but they must have had grim determination (starvation perhaps) because navigating past the fruit’s tiny spiny defenses is a skill unto itself. I ended up with several tiny, mildly painful needles in my palms that were stubbornly difficult to locate and remove.

My research led me to the conclusion that these little fruits are actually quite good for you and the subject of a fair amount of medical research. Known as nopal in Mexico, the prickly pear has been found to help with diabetes and lowering blood sugar levels.

Apparently the fruit has been used in traditional Mexican medicine for treating type 2 diabetes due to these blood sugar level-dropping properties. It has also been shown that 250mg of this plant consumed daily can lower both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels while HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels are not affected. Within alternative medicine fields, prickly pear is often used as a natural alternative to blood sugar regulating medications. The supplement is typically a dried form of the fruit and put into capsules.

But just eating the fruit itself has benefits too. The cactus is chock full of flavonoids, antioxidant plant pigments that give the fruit its bright color; which ranges from red to green to yellow-orange. The petal-shaped pads are rich in vitamin C, beta carotene and fiber, some of which can also be found in the fruit.

And did I mention that the fruit is delicious? It’s sweet, soft and light. The seeds are hard and, while my companion swallowed them whole, I chose to spit them out (both are apparently acceptable ways of dealing with them). Although I’ve never actually tried the pads of the cactus itself (called nopales in Mexico), apparently you can boil or grill them. They are reported to taste like green beans while having the texture of okra. Sounds intriguing. I’ll keep you posted if I ever get a chance to try it.

Author by Doug DiPasquale

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