Nopal
Overview
 
Nopales are a vegetable
Vegetable
The noun vegetable usually means an edible plant or part of a plant other than a sweet fruit or seed. This typically means the leaf, stem, or root of a plant....

 made from the young cladode (pad) segments of prickly pear
Opuntia
Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus , is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.Currently, only prickly pears are included in this genus of about 200 species distributed throughout most of the Americas. Chollas are now separated into the genus Cylindropuntia, which some still consider...

, carefully peeled to remove the spine
Thorns, spines, and prickles
In botanical morphology, thorns, spines, and prickles are hard structures with sharp, or at least pointed, ends. In spite of this common feature, they differ in their growth and development on the plant; they are modified versions of different plant organs, stems, stipules, leaf veins, or hairs...

s. These fleshy pads are flat and about hand-sized. They can be purple or green. They are particularly common in their native Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, where the plant is eaten commonly and regularly forms part of a variety of Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine, a style of food that originates in Mexico, is known for its varied flavors, colourful decoration and variety of spices and ingredients, most of which are native to the country. The cuisine of Mexico has evolved through thousands of years of blending indigenous cultures, with later...

 dishes. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica
Opuntia ficus-indica
Opuntia ficus-indica is a species of cactus that has long been a domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. It is thought to possibly be native to Mexico...

, although the pads of almost all Opuntia
Opuntia
Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus , is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.Currently, only prickly pears are included in this genus of about 200 species distributed throughout most of the Americas. Chollas are now separated into the genus Cylindropuntia, which some still consider...

species are edible.

Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico.
Encyclopedia
Nopales are a vegetable
Vegetable
The noun vegetable usually means an edible plant or part of a plant other than a sweet fruit or seed. This typically means the leaf, stem, or root of a plant....

 made from the young cladode (pad) segments of prickly pear
Opuntia
Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus , is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.Currently, only prickly pears are included in this genus of about 200 species distributed throughout most of the Americas. Chollas are now separated into the genus Cylindropuntia, which some still consider...

, carefully peeled to remove the spine
Thorns, spines, and prickles
In botanical morphology, thorns, spines, and prickles are hard structures with sharp, or at least pointed, ends. In spite of this common feature, they differ in their growth and development on the plant; they are modified versions of different plant organs, stems, stipules, leaf veins, or hairs...

s. These fleshy pads are flat and about hand-sized. They can be purple or green. They are particularly common in their native Mexico
Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, where the plant is eaten commonly and regularly forms part of a variety of Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine, a style of food that originates in Mexico, is known for its varied flavors, colourful decoration and variety of spices and ingredients, most of which are native to the country. The cuisine of Mexico has evolved through thousands of years of blending indigenous cultures, with later...

 dishes. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica
Opuntia ficus-indica
Opuntia ficus-indica is a species of cactus that has long been a domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. It is thought to possibly be native to Mexico...

, although the pads of almost all Opuntia
Opuntia
Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus , is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.Currently, only prickly pears are included in this genus of about 200 species distributed throughout most of the Americas. Chollas are now separated into the genus Cylindropuntia, which some still consider...

species are edible.

Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico. In more recent years bottled, or canned
Canning
Canning is a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in an airtight container. Canning provides a typical shelf life ranging from one to five years, although under specific circumstances a freeze-dried canned product, such as canned, dried lentils, can last as...

 versions are available mostly for export. Less often dried
Drying (food)
Drying is a method of food preservation that works by removing water from the food, which inhibits the growth of microorganisms and hinders quality decay. Drying food using sun and wind to prevent spoilage has been practised since ancient times, and was the earliest form of food curing...

 versions are available. Used to prepare nopalito
Nopalito
Nopalitos is a dish made with diced nopales. They are sold fresh, bottled, or canned and less often dried. They have a light, slightly tart flavor, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. Nopalitos are often eaten with eggs as a breakfast and in salads and soups as lunch and dinner meals.Nopalitos are...

s, they have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous
Mucilage
Mucilage is a thick, gluey substance produced by most plants and some microorganisms. It is a polar glycoprotein and an exopolysaccharide.It occurs in various parts of nearly all classes of plant, usually in relatively small percentages, and is frequently associated with other substances, such as...

 texture. In most recipes the mucilaginous liquid they contain is included in the cooking. They are at their most tender and juicy in the spring
Spring (season)
Spring is one of the four temperate seasons, the transition period between winter and summer. Spring and "springtime" refer to the season, and broadly to ideas of rebirth, renewal and regrowth. The specific definition of the exact timing of "spring" varies according to local climate, cultures and...

.

Though Nopales are most commonly used in Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine
Mexican cuisine, a style of food that originates in Mexico, is known for its varied flavors, colourful decoration and variety of spices and ingredients, most of which are native to the country. The cuisine of Mexico has evolved through thousands of years of blending indigenous cultures, with later...

 in dishes such as huevos con nopales (egg
Egg (food)
Eggs are laid by females of many different species, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, and have probably been eaten by mankind for millennia. Bird and reptile eggs consist of a protective eggshell, albumen , and vitellus , contained within various thin membranes...

s with nopal), "carne con nopales" (meat with nopal), "taco
Taco
A taco is a traditional Mexican dish composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. A taco can be made with a variety of fillings, including beef, chicken, seafood, vegetables and cheese, allowing for great versatility and variety...

s de nopales", or simply on their own or in salads with Panela Cheese
Queso Panela
Queso panela , also called queso canasta or queso de la canasta because it carries the impression of the basket in which it is molded, is a white, fresh and smooth cheese of pasteurized cow's milk, served most often as part of appetizer dishes such as nopal salads or quesadillas. It is derived...

. Nopales have also grown to be an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine
New Mexican cuisine
New Mexican cuisine is a regional cuisine found in New Mexico, reflecting the regional climate and long history as part of the Native American, Mexican, Spanish and United States cultures. This form of southwest cuisine is most popular in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and California...

 and in Tejano
Tejano
Tejano or Texano is a term used to identify a Texan of Mexican heritage.Historically, the Spanish term Tejano has been used to identify different groups of people...

 culture (Texas).

Health benefits

Nopales are very rich in insoluble and especially soluble dietary fiber
Dietary fiber
Dietary fiber, dietary fibre, or sometimes roughage is the indigestible portion of plant foods having two main components:* soluble fiber that is readily fermented in the colon into gases and physiologically active byproducts, and* insoluble fiber that is metabolically inert, absorbing water as it...

. They are also rich in vitamin
Vitamin
A vitamin is an organic compound required as a nutrient in tiny amounts by an organism. In other words, an organic chemical compound is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and must be obtained from the diet. Thus, the term is conditional both on...

s (especially vitamin A
Vitamin A
Vitamin A is a vitamin that is needed by the retina of the eye in the form of a specific metabolite, the light-absorbing molecule retinal, that is necessary for both low-light and color vision...

, vitamin C
Vitamin C
Vitamin C or L-ascorbic acid or L-ascorbate is an essential nutrient for humans and certain other animal species. In living organisms ascorbate acts as an antioxidant by protecting the body against oxidative stress...

, and vitamin K
Vitamin K
Vitamin K is a group of structurally similar, fat soluble vitamins that are needed for the posttranslational modification of certain proteins required for blood coagulation and in metabolic pathways in bone and other tissue. They are 2-methyl-1,4-naphthoquinone derivatives...

, but also riboflavin
Riboflavin
Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2 or additive E101, is an easily absorbed micronutrient with a key role in maintaining health in humans and animals. It is the central component of the cofactors FAD and FMN, and is therefore required by all flavoproteins. As such, vitamin B2 is required for a...

 and vitamin B6
Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin and is part of the vitamin B complex group. Several forms of the vitamin are known, but pyridoxal phosphate is the active form and is a cofactor in many reactions of amino acid metabolism, including transamination, deamination, and decarboxylation...

) and mineral
Dietary mineral
Dietary minerals are the chemical elements required by living organisms, other than the four elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen present in common organic molecules. Examples of mineral elements include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc, and iodine...

s (especially magnesium
Magnesium
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

, potassium
Potassium
Potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K and atomic number 19. Elemental potassium is a soft silvery-white alkali metal that oxidizes rapidly in air and is very reactive with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite the hydrogen emitted in the reaction.Potassium and sodium are...

, and manganese
Manganese
Manganese is a chemical element, designated by the symbol Mn. It has the atomic number 25. It is found as a free element in nature , and in many minerals...

, but also iron
Iron
Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal in the first transition series. It is the most common element forming the planet Earth as a whole, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust...

 and copper
Copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

). Nopales have a high calcium
Calcium
Calcium is the chemical element with the symbol Ca and atomic number 20. It has an atomic mass of 40.078 amu. Calcium is a soft gray alkaline earth metal, and is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust...

 content, but the nutrient is not biologically available because it is present as calcium oxalate
Calcium oxalate
Calcium oxalate is a chemical compound that forms needle-shaped crystals, known in plants as raphides. A major constituent of human kidney stones, the chemical is also found in beerstone, a scale that forms on containers used in breweries...

, which is neither highly soluble nor easily absorbed through the intestinal wall. Addition of nopales also reduces the glycemic effect
Glycemic index
The glycemic index, glycaemic index, or GI is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down more slowly, releasing glucose more...

 of a mixed meal. Nopales are low carbohydrate and may help in the treatment of diabetes.

Economic value

According to Reuters, some 10,000 farmers cultivate nopal in Mexico, producing around $150 million worth of it each year. Detection of the cactus-eating moth Cactoblastis cactorum
Cactoblastis cactorum
Cactoblastis cactorum, commonly known as the Cactus Moth, South American Cactus Moth, or Nopal Moth, is native to Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. It is one of five species in the genus Cactoblastis that lives in South America...

in Mexico in 2006 caused anxiety among the country's phytosanitary authorities, as this insect can be potentially devastating for the cactus industry.

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