What part of prickly pear do you eat?

The prickly pear cactus, also known as nopal or tuna, is a popular edible plant that has been a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries. Its paddle-shaped flattened stems, fruits, flowers, and even seeds are used in a variety of dishes, from salads to soups, drinks, candies and jams. Though the entire plant is edible, the most commonly eaten parts are the pads, fruits, and seeds. Let’s take a closer look at each of these parts to understand which ones people eat and how to properly prepare them for meals.


The oval, flattened stems or pads, also known as nopales or paddles, are perhaps the most popularly consumed part of the nopal cactus. Approximately 150 species of prickly pear cacti can be found in North and South America, all of which have edible pads. The pads are typically light green in color and can range in length from 5 to 30 cm. Their surface is dotted with areoles bearing tiny, hair-like glochids that can easily detach and cause skin irritation. Hence, the pads need to be handled carefully and cleaned well before consumption.

The nopales have a delicate flavor, reminiscent of green beans. Their texture is slightly mucilaginous, much like okra. The younger pads are more tender and considered tastier than the older, woody ones. To prepare the pads for cooking, the glochids must be singed off or thoroughly scrubbed. The pads are then rinsed and chopped into smaller pieces. A common way to enjoy nopales is by sautéing them with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and chili peppers. They can also be added to scrambled eggs, used in quesadillas and tacos, or made into salads, soups, stews, or juices. The moisture content in the pads helps balance out the spiciness of the accompanying ingredients.

Health benefits of nopal pads

Nopales are low in calories but packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. Some key nutrients found in them include:

  • Dietary fiber – Helps regulate digestion and bowel movements
  • Vitamin A – Important for good vision and cell growth
  • Vitamin C – Boosts immunity and aids collagen production
  • Magnesium – Essential for bone development, muscle and nerve function
  • Calcium – Needed for bone health and strength
  • Potassium – Helps control blood pressure

Regular consumption of nopal pads may provide several health benefits:

  • Lowering blood glucose levels in diabetics
  • Reducing cholesterol and risk of heart disease
  • Aiding in weight loss
  • Detoxifying the body and liver
  • Boosting immunity due to high vitamin C content

Thus, adding nopales to one’s diet can be very beneficial for overall health. Just be sure to clean them thoroughly and cook them well before eating.


The fruits that grow on prickly pear cacti are called tunas in Spanish. These fruits are oval in shape and covered with tiny hair-like glochids. The glochids need to be removed completely before the fruits can be eaten. There are over 200 varieties of prickly pear fruits, ranging in color from green and yellow to pink, orange, red, purple, and even white. The size can also vary, with some being smaller than a hen’s egg while others may be as large as a melon.

The flesh or inner pulp of these colorful fruits is the part that is eaten. It has a sweet flavor reminiscent of strawberries or citrus fruits. The texture is like a cross between cucumbers and berries – soft, succulent and filled with numerous small seeds. The seeds are edible as well, though some people prefer to remove them before eating the pulp.

Some popular ways to enjoy prickly pear fruits include:

  • Cutting them open and scooping out the fresh pulp
  • Making fruit salads, sorbets, or agua frescas (fruit coolers)
  • Adding them to smoothies, yogurts or desserts
  • Making jams, jellies or candies with the pulp

The fruits can also be found in the form of juices, drinks, ice creams, and even dietary supplements due to their immense health benefits.

Nutrients and benefits

Prickly pear fruits are low in calories and fat but contain good amounts of:

  • Vitamin C – Boosts immunity
  • Magnesium – Needed for metabolism and muscle function
  • Calcium – Important for bones
  • Potassium – Helps control blood pressure
  • Fiber – Improves digestion
  • Antioxidants – Reduce oxidative stress and inflammation
  • Betalains – Provide color and may lower cancer risk

Some science-backed benefits include:

  • Lowering high cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease
  • Supporting gastrointestinal and immune health
  • Exhibiting anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-ulcer properties

The high nutrient and low calorie content makes prickly pear fruits a smart choice for one’s diet. Just remember to peel off the skin and glochids first before eating the juicy pulp.


The pulp of prickly pear fruits has numerous tiny edible seeds embedded in it. Though small in size, these seeds are packed with nutrients and dietary fiber. 100 grams of dried prickly pear seeds contain:

  • Protein – 64% of Daily Value
  • Fiber – 85% of Daily Value
  • Calcium – 17% of Daily Value
  • Iron – 15% of Daily Value
  • Zinc – 32% of Daily Value
  • Magnesium – 92% of Daily Value

They are also rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and natural plant sterols. Some key benefits of consuming the seeds include:

  • Aiding digestion
  • Lowering blood sugar and cholesterol
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Supporting heart health
  • Improving nutrient absorption

You can eat the tiny seeds along with the fruit pulp or spat out after chewing the pulp. However, the most common way to eat prickly pear seeds is in powdered form as a supplement or added to foods. The dried seeds are ground into a fine powder which can then be:

  • Sprinkled on cereals, yogurt, salads, etc.
  • Added to smoothies, juice, or protein shakes
  • Used in soups, baked goods, energy bars, etc.
  • Taken as capsules or tablets

Prickly pear seed powder has a mild, nutty taste. Consuming just 1-2 teaspoons per day can provide a boost of nutrients and fiber.


The large, brightly colored flowers that bloom on prickly pear cacti are also edible. They have a slightly tangy, citrusy taste akin to zucchini or green beans. The texture is crunchy and succulent.

To eat prickly pear flowers:

  • Pick freshly opened flowers in the morning once the dew has evaporated.
  • Gently pluck the petals and separate from the bitter reproductive parts.
  • Rinse and pat dry.
  • Add petals to salads, soups, eggs, etc.

Some delicious ways to use the flowers include:

  • Salads – Add petals to green, fruit, chicken, or pasta salads.
  • Quesadillas and tacos – Mix chopped petals into the fillings.
  • Omelets and frittatas – Stir fried flowers into the beaten eggs.
  • Sandwiches and pizza – Use as edible garnish.
  • Ceviches – Marinate raw seafood with lime juice and flowers.
  • Desserts – Use as topping for cakes, cupcakes, ice cream.
  • Teas and lemonade – Infuse hot water or cold juice with fresh petals.

The flowers provide vitamin C, beta-carotene, and antioxidant flavonoids. They have mild diuretic properties and may help reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar levels. Overall, prickly pear flowers make a novel, nutritious addition to one’s diet.

How to Choose and Store Prickly Pear Parts

When selecting prickly pear stems, fruits or flowers:

  • Look for brightly colored, firm, and blemish-free parts.
  • Avoid bruised, wrinkled, moldy or dried out pieces.
  • For pads – Opt for smaller, younger nopales which are more tender.
  • For fruits – Pick ones that feel heavy for their size.
  • For flowers – Choose freshly opened, vibrant flowers.

To store:

  • Refrigerate unwashed pads, fruits, and flowers in the produce drawer.
  • Rinse just before use.
  • Consume pads within 3-5 days.
  • Eat fruits and flowers within 2 days for best quality.
  • Cut fruits can be refrigerated for 3-4 days in an airtight container.

Freezing the fruits for later use is also an option. The nopales too can be blanched and frozen for months.

Risks and Precautions

While most parts of prickly pear cactus are edible, some individuals may experience allergic reactions or sensitivity. The glochids can also stick in the throat and cause choking if swallowed.

To be safe:

  • Remove all glochids and spines thoroughly before consumption.
  • Introduce prickly pear into your diet slowly and one part at a time.
  • Monitor for any allergic reaction symptoms like rash, itching, swelling or difficulty breathing.
  • Avoid raw consumption if you have sensitivity.
  • Cook pads, fruits and flowers properly before eating.
  • Drink plenty of liquids to help eliminate glochids if accidentally ingested.

Pregnant women should exercise caution as well, since there is insufficient research on its safety. Moderation is key when trying any new food.


While the entire prickly pear cactus is edible, the parts most commonly eaten are the pads (nopales), fruits (tunas), seeds, and flowers. The mild, slightly succulent pads can be cooked and added to eggs, tacos, soups, etc. The sweet, juicy pulp and small seeds of the fruits are often scooped out raw or made into jams. Flowers can provide a tangy, novel addition to salads. Dried seeds are ground into nutritious powders than can be incorporated into foods or taken as supplements. When harvested and prepared properly, these parts of the prickly pear can provide a tasty and healthy boost to one’s diet. Just take necessary precautions to remove irritating glochids and introduce prickly pear gradually to check for allergies.

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