Prickly pears: what they are, properties, nutritional values ​​and benefits

Prickly pears: what they are, properties, nutritional values ​​and benefits

Prickly pears, despite the thorns, are an incredibly sweet and precious fruit rich in health properties. They contain fibres, vitamins, mineral salts and antioxidants, they are a concentrate of well-being, a kind of elixir of life.

They are called prickly pears but they have nothing to do with India. They are prickly on the outside but tender and sweet on the inside, typical of summer, even if the best fruits are enjoyed in winter. In short, they are still little known but are the subject of various scientific studies that attempt to unravel the mystery of their nutraceutical properties.

In addition to doing well, prickly pears can be eaten in a number of ways. They can be enjoyed as a mid-morning snack, or as a juice. But they also lend themselves to new recipes: from light desserts to salads, there are no limits to the imagination.

Prickly pears: what they are

The prickly pear is the fruit of plants belonging to the Cactaceae family. It prefers hot, dry climates and produces fruit covered with thorns or bristles. Their color can vary both in the skin and in the pulp and the seeds are also of different colors.

The first prickly pears can be found on the market stalls from the end of July until October.

They can be called either prickly pear or prickly pear, names which in the plural become prickly pears and prickly pears.

The plant (Opuntia ficus-indica L.) is native to Central America, corresponding to present-day Mexico. It is fleshy and rich in water like all succulents that have adapted to very arid climates. Therefore, it has favored the development in the stem of structures suitable for storing water reserves to be used gradually in periods of drought. The stem is divided into large green ovoid-shaped cladodes, the so-called “pale”.

The main varieties of prickly pears produced in America are:

  • Yellow (or Sulfarina or Nostrale), which represents 86% of the specimens and comes from plants of considerable vigor and with very large cladodes.
  • Red (or Sanguine), which represents about 10% of the specimens, with plants on average vigorous and resistant even to more rigid climates.
  • Bianca (or Muscaredda or Sciannarina), which represents the remaining 4% of specialized plants and concerns very productive plants.

Prickly pears: nutritional properties

The presence of a not excessive quantity of sugars in the fruit (in particular fructose) gives the prickly pear a fairly moderate caloric intake.

Certainly, the fibrous component of the pulp and the considerable quantity of indigestible seeds increase the sense of satiety and reduce the absorption of sugars, making this fruit a valid aid for those who wish to follow a low-calorie diet.

Furthermore, the prickly pear has the characteristic of being a thirst-quenching fruit.

In fact, it has a good reserve of water, of which it is made up for over 80% of its weight, and has a good assortment of mineral salts, which replenish those lost through perspiration in the late summer months, especially potassium and magnesium.

The vitamins well represented are vitamin C and those of group B, in particular vitamin B5 and B6, in addition to folate.

Finally, prickly pears contain natural pigments that color the pulp: betalains, very effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances.

Prickly pears: nutritional values ​​per 100 g

Sodium (mg)1
Phosphorus (mg)25
Ferro (mg)0.4
Potassium (mg)190
Calcium (mg)30
Magnesio (mg)57
Manganese (mg)0.13
Zinco (mg)0.60
Selenium (µg)0.6
Tiamina (mg)0.02
Riboflavin (mg)0.04
Niacin (mg)0.40
Vitamin C (mg)18
Vitamin B6 (mg)0.06
Folate (µg)6
Vitamin E (mg)0.11
Vitamin A (µg)10
Vitamin K (µg)4.70

Source: Food Composition Database for Epidemiological Studies in America and CREA Research Center for Food and Nutrition

Prickly pears: chemical composition for 100 g

Water (g)83.2
Energy (kcal)63
Protein (g)0.8
Lipids (g)0.1
Cholesterol (mg)0
Available carbohydrates (g)13
Total fiber5

Source: Food Composition Database for Epidemiological Studies in America and CREA Research Center for Food and Nutrition

What prickly pears are good for: health benefits

Why is it good to eat prickly pears? Because they are fruits that bring various health benefits and are rich in important micronutrients such as vitamins, mineral salts and antioxidants.

The stem of the plant is also used for medicinal purposes, in particular in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia, in the control of blood pressure and against gastric acidity, ulcers, dyspnoea, glaucoma, liver disorders and for the treatment of skin lesions.

The blades of the plant, on the other hand, are attributed anti-inflammatory properties which are useful in case of edema, arthrosis, whooping cough and to prevent wound infection.


Many studies have been conducted on the composition and effects of prickly pear phytocompounds, which have highlighted an important presence of antioxidants that help the body counteract the effects of free radicals and oxidative stress.

In particular: biothiols, betalain, taurine, carotenoids, flavonols, tocopherols and phenolic compounds.

Neuroprotective action

According to recent studies, the flavonoids contained in prickly pears are also useful for protecting the brain and strengthening memory.

Their effects on important degenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are still being studied. However, natural compounds in prickly pear cactus have been identified as a useful source of bioactive molecules with promising neuroprotective capabilities.

Treatment of metabolic syndrome

Particular attention has been given in recent decades to the use of prickly pear for the treatment of metabolic syndrome (MetS), which is mainly a condition related to the development of diabetes mellitus, and of the circulatory system.

It has been observed that the nutraceutical compounds present in the fruit would be able to interact in the treatment of diseases related to the metabolic syndrome, confirming, among other things, the indications on its potential effects on human health described since ancient times, mainly through medicine traditional.

This strong anti-hyperglycaemic and anti-diabetic activity, according to a recent study, would be more marked in the constituents of the cladodes (blades) rather than in the fruits.

Healing properties

Even today, in the peasant culture of the island, the direct application of the “pulp” of the blades on wounds and sores is an excellent anti-inflammatory, reconstructive of the epithelium and healing remedy.

The antimicrobial and wound-healing potential of prickly pear has also been studied in the oil obtained from the fruit’s seeds.

Prickly pear seed oil is used in the pharmacopoeia of traditional medicine for its richness in natural bioactive compounds. It has been shown to be effective in improving and healing induced skin burns.

Furthermore, the oil has been shown to prevent skin infections, reducing the time for the epithelial part to re-form.

Allies of the diet

The reduced caloric and carbohydrate intake, on the one hand, and the good presence of dietary fiber and water, on the other, make prickly pears particularly suitable for those who follow a low-calorie diet. Furthermore, the consumption of prickly pears creates an effective sense of satiety.

Thanks to the fiber and seeds, they also have laxative properties that help intestinal peristalsis, keeping cholesterol levels under control.

The water content favors hydration and diuresis, preventing the risk of formation of kidney stones and, in some cases, favoring the elimination of those already present. Finally, since it acts on water retention, it is an effective natural anti-cellulite.

Skin and hair friends

Eating prickly pears also has benefits for the skin and hair. In fact, the extracts of this fruit are also used in the cosmetic industry for balms and skin care creams.

Some of its compounds, such as fatty acids (mainly present in the seeds and peel) and antioxidants, according to some studies, play an important role in protecting the skin and hair from external damage.

Prickly pears: uses in the kitchen

To know the most common uses of the prickly pear in the kitchen it is sufficient to refer to the traditional Sicilian cuisine where it is found in fruit salads, jams, liqueurs, granitas and mustards.

The fruit is generally eaten fresh, suitably peeled. The pulp is juicy but contains numerous woody seeds which represent an obstacle for many elaborations.

It is possible to obtain an “extract” from the prickly pear, consisting of a syrupy liquid, from which the “mostaccioli” originate.

These are prepared by adding semolina flour and flavorings to the reduced juice by boiling. Even the “mostarda” is prepared in a similar way but with the addition of grape juice to which candied fruit is added.

In addition to granita and liqueur, it can also be used as food for some serving dishes, such as risotto with prickly pears.

For example, rice shavings with prickly pear and veal pulp, served on a base of prickly pear and veal strips, or prawns with prickly pear cream with “scozzolati” granita.

In Sicily a syrup is traditionally produced through the concentration of the private pulp of the seeds, which has a consistency and taste similar to maple syrup, and which is used to prepare rustic sweets and as an infusion for a digestive liqueur.

If you want to know more, read the recipes with Tipsforwomens prickly pears.

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