What is prickly pear cactus syrup used for?

Prickly pear cactus syrup, also known as nopal syrup, is a sweet syrup made from the juice of prickly pear cactus pads. The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a type of cactus that produces edible fruit and pads. It grows extensively throughout arid and semi-arid regions of the Americas and has been used as a food source for centuries by indigenous peoples.

Quick Answers

Prickly pear cactus syrup is used for:

  • Sweetening foods and beverages – It can be used as a natural sweetener in place of sugar or other syrups
  • Flavoring dishes and drinks – It has a unique, mild flavor that enhances many recipes
  • Preserving and canning – The high sugar content allows it to be canned and preserved
  • Medicinal purposes – Traditionally used to treat inflammation, wounds, and other conditions
  • Skincare – Often added to cosmetics like lotions for its hydrating properties

Making Prickly Pear Cactus Syrup

Prickly pear syrup is made by extracting the juice from the pads of the cactus, known as nopales. The steps include:

  1. Cleaning and preparing the nopales – Removing spines, peeling, and chopping into pieces.
  2. Extracting the juice – Blending or pressing the nopales to release the juice.
  3. Straining the juice – To remove any solids or pulp.
  4. Adding sugar – The juice is boiled with sugar to concentrate it and develop the syrupy texture.
  5. Reducing it – The mixture is simmered until it reaches the desired thickness.
  6. Canning or storing – While still hot, the syrup is bottled or jarred for preservation.

The exact ratio of cactus juice to sugar can vary based on preference. Generally an equal amount or slightly more sugar is used compared to the amount of extracted cactus juice. This helps achieve the right consistency for the syrup.

Key Points in Preparation

  • Use ripe, red-purple colored pads – They have the highest juice content.
  • Remove glochids thoroughly – Tiny spines can irritate skin and mouth if not removed.
  • Extract juice rapidly after cleaning – To prevent oxidation and browning of the juice.
  • Don’t over-boil the syrup – Too much heat degradation can cause off-flavors.
  • Allow to cool before bottling – Prevent shattering of glass jars due to temperature change.

Nutrition Facts and Benefits

Prickly pear cactus syrup contains many beneficial vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is considered a good source of:

  • Vitamin C – For immune system health.
  • Calcium – For bone strength.
  • Magnesium – Supports nerve and muscle function.
  • Potassium – Helps control fluid balance.
  • Antioxidants like betalains – Reduce oxidative cell damage.
  • Fiber – Improves digestion and heart health.

Compared to regular sugar or corn syrup, prickly pear syrup has a lower glycemic index. This means it does not spike blood sugar levels as rapidly. For this reason, prickly pear syrup may be better for diabetics or those looking to control their blood sugar levels.

However, prickly pear syrup is still high in natural sugars. One tablespoon contains about 60 calories all from sugar. It should be used in moderation by those concerned about sugar intake.

Nutrition Facts Per 1 Tablespoon (21g)

Calories 60
Total Carbohydrates 15g
Sugars 15g
Calcium 18mg
Magnesium 10mg
Vitamin C 1mg

Culinary Uses

Prickly pear syrup brings its unique flavor profile to both sweet and savory recipes. Here are some common ways it is used in the kitchen:


  • Smoothies – Adds flavor and natural sweetness.
  • Juices – Mix with orange, carrot, beet or other juices.
  • Tea or coffee – Sweetener and flavor enhancer.
  • Cocktails – Unique addition to margaritas and vodka drinks.
  • Aguas frescas – Mixed with water as a refreshing cooler.
  • Soda or energy drinks – To make homemade prickly pear versions.


  • Cakes and cupcakes – Adds moisture and balances sweetness.
  • Cookies – Substitute for part of the sugar or other liquids.
  • Pies – Prickly pear fruit and syrup together in fillings.
  • Pudding – Flavor enhancer in chocolate or vanilla pudding.
  • Ice cream – Swirl into ice cream or blend into bases.
  • Sorbet – Prickly pear sorbet with lemon or lime accents.

Savory Dishes

  • Salad dressings and vinaigrettes – Sweetness and acidity.
  • Marinades – For meats, tofu, tempeh or vegetables.
  • BBQ sauces and glazes – Balance smoky and sweet.
  • Chutneys – Cooked down with spices and vinegar.
  • Pickling liquids – Added to brines and pickling spices.

Try using about 1-3 tablespoons of prickly pear syrup in place of other sweeteners in any recipe. The mild flavor allows it to work in both sweet and savory applications.

Medicinal Uses

For centuries, prickly pear cactus has been used in traditional folk medicine in Mexico and throughout North and South America. Both the pads and fruits are believed to have healing properties. Prickly pear syrup can provide medicinal benefits through concentrated compounds from the pads used to produce it.

Potential Medicinal Benefits

  • Anti-inflammatory effects – Studies show reduction in inflammatory markers.
  • Hangover relief – Alleviates nausea and headache symptoms.
  • Ulcer treatment – Coats and protects damaged stomach and intestinal lining.
  • Lower cholesterol – May reduce LDL and triglyceride levels in the blood.
  • Burn treatment – Used topically to soothe and heal burns.
  • Diabetes management – Helps control blood sugar spikes.

More research is still needed to fully understand the medicinal mechanisms of prickly pear. However, the anecdotal and traditional use of prickly pear syrup and extracts points to some promising health effects.

Potential Side Effects

  • May interact with medications for diabetes, hypertension, etc.
  • Can cause allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.
  • Large amounts may have laxative effect.
  • May irritate stomach if consumed in excess.

Consult your physician before using prickly pear syrup medicinally, especially if taking any medications or if pregnant/nursing.

Other Uses of Prickly Pear Cactus

Beyond culinary and medicinal uses, prickly pear cactus has a number of other traditional and modern applications:


The pads and fruits can be used to extract vibrant red, purple, and orange natural dyes. These have been used for textile dyeing and food coloring.

Animal Feed

The pads or nopalitos are grown as forage crops for livestock in arid regions. Their drought resistance makes them ideal feed.

Fencing and Barriers

Prickly pear cacti are traditionally used as natural fencing to mark boundaries and enclose areas. Their spines deter animals from crossing.

Decorative Gardening

The unique shapes and flowers make prickly pear popular ornamental plants. They are drought tolerant and require little care.


Mucilage from the pads has properties useful in adhesives, cosmetics, and industrial applications.

Availability and Selection

Prickly pear cactus syrup can be found in well-stocked grocery stores, specialty food shops, farmer’s markets, and online. When selecting syrup, look for:

  • Glass or plastic containers – Avoid potential metal leaching.
  • Organic and non-GMO verified – For quality assurance.
  • Single ingredient – Prickly pear juice and sugar only.
  • Rich color – Vibrant red to deep magenta.
  • Proper viscosity – Not too thin or thick.
  • Mexico origin – Traditional production source.

If unavailable in stores near you, prickly pear syrup can also be prepared at home using fresh prickly pear cactus pads.


Unopened prickly pear syrup will keep 12 months or longer at room temperature. Once opened, syrup should be refrigerated and used within 3-6 months. Look for any mold development before using. For homemade syrup, the typical refrigerated shelf life is 4-6 weeks.

Syrup may separate with age. This is normal. Simply stir to re-emulsify before using. Boiling water bath canning prolongs homemade syrup shelf life to 12 months.


If you don’t have prickly pear cactus syrup, you can substitute in a few ways:

  • Simple syrup – Use equal part sugar dissolved in water.
  • Agave nectar – Sweeter than prickly pear, so reduce amount.
  • Grenadine – Also made from cactus fruits.
  • Other fruit syrups – Try pineapple, mango, or strawberry syrup.

While not exactly the same, these syrups can provide enough sweetness and flavor for most applications. You may need to adjust sugar and liquid content accordingly in recipes.


Prickly pear cactus syrup is a unique ingredient that offers sweetness along with culinary versatility, nutrition, and medicinal potential. Its mild flavor and multifunctional nature make it suitable for both sweet and savory recipes, beverages, dressings and more. While commonly used in Latin American cuisine, this syrup deserves a place in more pantries and kitchens for its delicious taste and intriguing health properties.

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