Cactus fruit is a staple produce item for many people in Mexico, especially during the summer when the fruit is at its most ripe. The fruit is widely available across Mexico as it grows wild, on plantations for mass production, and can even be grown at home.
What is cactus fruit? How to cut and eat cactus fruit? Cactus fruit refers to the fruit that grows on the prickly pear cactus, often called tunas. The fruit can be eaten after using a knife to score and then remove the skin. The fruit may be cut into chunks and eaten raw or is used as a key ingredient in many dishes and beverages.
The popularity of cactus fruit is growing outside of Mexico because of its delicious natural flavors, versatility, and health benefits. You may have heard of cactus fruit referred to as prickly pear or tuna fruit. If you do not know much about the fruit, how to eat it, or what to use it in this article will give you all you need to know.
All About the Prickly Pear and Its Fruit
Prickly pear cacti have flat, thick pads that look like large leaves, but actually function more like branches or stems to the plant. The pads are responsible for water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production. These pads are also known as nopales. Nopales are edible and often sold in stores under the name nopalito.
The fruits of prickly pears, more commonly known and sold in stores as tunas, vary based on the species of prickly pear. The cactus fruit will vary in size, with the largest varieties comparable to the size of a kiwi. The cactus fruit is round, with some varieties being longer and others more spherical. The color of cactus fruit can vary from shades of yellow, green, and deep magenta. The sweetness of the cactus fruit will depend largely on the color of its skin.
Yellow-green cactus fruits are the less sweet variety, but they are most popular in Mexico. In contrast, the deep magenta cactus fruits are very sweet; they are compared to bubblegum or syrup by some.
On both the cactus fruit and cactus pads are glochids, tiny, barbed spines. These spines can be difficult to see, making them extra bothersome if one is to stick to your skin. Glochids need to be removed entirely before consuming the cactus fruit, which will be explained further in the article!
Where Can You Get Cactus Fruit?
Cactus fruits can be store-bought or, depending on where you live, harvested fresh off the prickly pear cactus. Keep reading to know what to keep in mind while picking your cactus fruit!
Picking Cactus Fruit
For safety, protecting your hands is very important while picking cactus fruit. Because of spines on the cactus pads, and glochids on both the fruit and pads, you will not want to touch the cactus or its fruit with your bare hands.
To protect your hands, you can use:
- Thick, protective gloves
- A thick towel or cloth
- A pair of long tongs
You will also need a durable bag or basket to safely hold the fruit until you get the chance to remove the glochids later.
No cactus fruit is poisonous, so all are safe to pick, but some will be better tasting and for cooking than others. You will want to look for the darker-skinned, sweeter fruits. Fruits of lighter color are less ripe and will taste less sweet. However, check darker fruits for any wrinkling or bruising that may suggest they are over-ripe. To pick the fruit off the plant, just grip and twist the fruit. Ripe fruits should come off without much force.
Store-Bought Cactus Fruit
Store-bought cactus fruit will usually have the glochids removed before being put on the shelves. This makes picking up the cactus fruit at a store a convenient option.
When shopping in your store’s produce section, you will want to be mindful of the color of the cactus fruit to get the sweetness you are looking for. Also, look out for any bruising that may have been caused by damage to the fruit during shipping or any wrinkling that may suggest the cactus fruit is overripe.
How to Remove the Glochids
Luckily, the skin of cactus fruit is not eaten. With the skin removed, it is highly unlikely any glochids would ever be consumed. Still, you will want to be very careful that there are no glochids on the fruit before you begin handling it.
Removing glochids is essential if you picked cactus fruit yourself. Again, store brought fruit is, in most cases, safe to handle already. Remember to pay attention to the tops and bottoms of the fruit, because the glochids are often more closely clustered there.
There are a few ways to go about removing the glochids. Pick one that is most convenient for you and what you have handy in your kitchen!
- A Potato Peeler. With thick gloves and a potato peeler, you can remove the glochids by cutting them off with the potato peeler.
- An Open Flame. A flame will singe off any glochids. You can take advantage of this by using a small flame and a long pair of tongs to hold the cactus fruit over it. Rotate the fruit carefully as not to burn the skin. Continue until all the glochids are removed.
The spots where the glochids are clustered and growing from getting darker when they have fallen off. Do not worry if you hear popping noises or see little sparks from the fruit as the glochids are coming off.
- Non-Toxic Elmer’s Glue. This method will use the stickiness of the glue to pluck the glochids off the fruit. Again, while using gloves, apply a thin layer of glue over the surface of the fruit. It may be helpful to use a small brush to apply the glue, as you cannot smooth the glue out with your hands. When the glue is visibly dry, peel it back gently, lifting the glochids from the cactus fruit’s skin.
- Tape. If you do not have glue, you can follow the same process using tape that has a non-toxic adhesive. Just secure the tape on to the fruit’s skin and gently peel back, removing the glochids.
Helpful Tip: If any glochids, especially the hard to see ones, do latch on to you, you can use the glue or tape method to remove them from the skin as well!
How to Thoroughly Wash Cactus Fruit
Washing the cactus fruit is important as is washing any fruit, but also because washing will further remove any of the finer, hard to see glochids.
If you picked your cactus fruit, you will want to make sure it is clean after coming in from outside. If you bought your cactus fruit you will want to make sure it is cleaned thoroughly after any shipping and handling and can ensure any glochids missed in large scale removal are washed away.
- Use a colander and place enough cactus fruit to fill only roughly halfway, the exact amount will vary with the size of your colander and cactus fruits.
- Rinse under cold water, gently swirling around the cactus fruit in the colander for at least thirty seconds to a minute. You can add fruit and vegetable wash to this step if you wish. Be careful to be abrasive enough that they are all moved around and rinsed thoroughly, but without bruising the fruit.
- When finished, lay out to dry or carefully pat dry.
How To Cut Cactus Fruit and Remove the Skin
Once your glochids are thoroughly removed, and the fruit is clean, you are ready to cut into it! Cutting a cactus fruit will mainly serve to remove the skin, revealing the delicious pear-shaped fruit inside.
The skin of the cactus fruit has two layers to it. This is important to know, so you are sure to remove the skin thoroughly. There is the thin outer layer of skin and attached to that is a thicker, softer layer around the fruit as well. The underneath layer may seem like part of the fruit as it has a pulp-like consistency, but it should be noticeably different than the fruit underneath, and it is attached to the outer layer, so it should easily peel off it with it.
- Start by slicing off the end of the fruit. Remove about a quarter of an inch off each end.
- Make four lengthwise slices in the skin from top to bottom. The slices should cut through the tough outer skin and the pulpy layer of skin underneath too.
- Now your skin should be divided into four sections. Starting from the top peel back each section one by one.
Once you have the cactus fruit peeled, how you eat it is up to you! Eating the fruit raw is very common. To do so, you can simply cut the fruit in half lengthwise and eat it with your hands, or you can enjoy it by chopping the fruit into cubes or slices.
When you cut open the cactus fruit, you will see that the center has small, round seeds. These seeds are tough and cannot be bitten through but are safe to consume. It is a personal preference if you choose to remove the seeds by scooping them out or spitting them out while eating or to eat the fruit and seeds in entirety simply.
Health Benefits of Cactus Fruit
Like any other fruit, cactus fruit can be a healthy and nutritious part of any diet. Choosemyplate.gov recommends 2 cups of fruit a day for most women and men. Cactus fruit is a great way to get your daily fruit intake up!
Cactus fruit has many health benefits:
- Cactus fruit is micronutrient dense.
Like all fruits, cactus fruit contains essential micronutrients. The cactus fruit is a source of iron, magnesium, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and vitamin B6. Vitamin C and magnesium have the highest percentage values in a serving of cactus fruit.
- Cactus fruit is a great weight-loss food.
As a food low in calories, but high in micronutrients, cactus fruit is a great choice for those looking to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. The fiber found in the cactus fruit keeps people fuller for longer, a helpful component to weight loss.
- Cactus fruit can improve digestion.
High levels of fiber and anti-inflammatory properties make the cactus fruit a great way to support proper digestion. The fruit can help food move along the digestive tract and be digested efficiently.
- Cactus fruit is good for heart health.
The cactus fruit is a great source of fiber, which is why the fruit has been associated with lowering cholesterol. Soluble fiber may help lower total blood cholesterol levels and provide other heart benefits as well. (Source:mayoclinic.org)
- Cactus fruit can decrease blood sugar levels.
Cactus fruit has been shown to decrease blood sugar levels, making this fruit a helpful dietary component for many people with diabetes. (Source:webmd.com)
Cosmetic Uses of Cactus Fruit
Just as the prickly pear cactus has an array of positive health effects when eaten, it can be a powerful ingredient in cosmetic products. Specifically, the oil derived from seeds found in the prickly pear cactus have become a major ingredient in many skincare products.
Prickly pear seed oil is high in vitamin E. The oil has been found to have three times the vitamin E found in argan oil. (Source: munskin.com) Along with vitamin E the oil contains lower concentrations of other essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamin K.
Prickly pear seed oil benefits the skin by reducing the appearance of fine lines, preventing the formation of wrinkles prematurely, brightening dark under-eye circles and reducing hyperpigmentation. Some find that the prickly pear oil’s antiinflammation properties can be of help to those who suffer from rosacea as well. (Source: victoriahealth.com)
Using prickly pear seed oil protects the skin’s barrier and increases moisture. The moisturizing properties of prickly pear seed oil can also benefit dry, damaged hair or dry, brittle nails, and cuticles.
The oil from prickly pear seeds in light and absorbs quickly when used. Unfortunately, prickly pear seed oil is among the costliest of beauty oils available. The price tag reflects the large amount of seeds that are required to exact even just an ounce of the oil.
Possible Side Effects and Risks
While cactus fruit has many potential health benefits, you should exercise caution introducing any new food into your diet, and the fruit is no exception.
Some side effects of eating prickly pear can include:
- Increased stool volume and/or frequency
When eating cactus fruit, be sure to practice healthy portions and proper washing for the safest possible experience. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or on any medication ask your doctor if cactus fruit is a safe addition to your diet and discuss possible consequences.
Ways to Eat Cactus Fruit
While cactus fruit is great when eaten raw, it can also make a great key ingredient in many delicious recipes. The sweet flavor of cactus fruit can be used in many different recipes and treat, ranging from simple to more complex. Here are a few ideas on how to use your cactus fruits in a new way!
- Add Cactus Fruit to Salad. Whether adding it into a fruit salad or as a sweet note in a savory salad, the cactus fruit mixes well with other fresh flavors. Adding cactus fruit to a salad brings in a kick of sweetness and pop of color to the dish.
- Fruit Jam. Cactus fruit can be a great base for a beautifully bright jam. The jam will store well and be a versatile item to have around the kitchen, going great with toast, on yogurt, in pastries, and more!
- Cactus Fruit Sorbet. A perfect summer treat to cool down with can be a scoop of sweet and brightly colored cactus fruit sorbet. Simply substitute cactus fruit, the main ingredient in your favorite sorbet recipe. You can even save from fresh cactus fruit to throw on top!
- Cactus Fruit Gummy Candy. The sweet taste of cactus fruit is reminiscent of candy naturally. By combining the fruit with pectin, added sugar, and optional ingredients, you can make your own gummy candy from the cactus fruit!
- Cactus Fruit Simple Syrup. By cooking prickly pear fruit down in a simple syrup recipe, you can create a fruity syrup that is perfect for adding to drinks or topping ice cream.
Drinks Made with Cactus Fruit
Prickly pear syrup and juice are also commonly used to add flavor and sweetest to drink. Whether you prefer non-alcoholic options or want to add a boozy kick with the cactus fruit flavor, there is a drink option for everyone to try and enjoy.
Prickly pear juice or syrup are commonly added to:
- Lemonade. The sweet flavor of the cactus fruit combines with the tartness of lemon to make a perfect balance of flavors. The combination is a mix of refreshing summery flavors everyone can enjoy.
- Aguas Frescas. Aguas frescas, meaning cool waters, are non-alcoholic drinks made by mixing fruit juices, sugar or honey, and water. Cactus fruits are a perfect compliment to these sweet refreshments.
- Margaritas. The sweetness of cactus fruit syrup pairs great with the sourness from lime juice and adds a pop of bright pink color that will surely make your margaritas stand out!
- Sangria. Adding cubes of cactus fruit to this fruity drink only makes sense! You can add cactus fruit to your favorite sangria recipe or find a new recipe made just to compliment the fruit’s flavor. Popular ingredients in a cactus fruit sangria are white wine, citrus, and even mint leaves.
Different Types of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit
As mentioned earlier, there are many species of prickly pear cactus, which is where the variation in fruit size, color, and taste comes from.
- Indian Fig Prickly Pear. This is the most commonly known and consumed species of the prickly pear cactus. The fruits of this cactus vary in color yellow, to shades of pink and red. The fruits are very sweet and commonly used to make cactus fruit flavored candies, jellies, or drinks.
- Spineless Prickly Pears. While this species does not have sharp spines, the glochids are still present on the cactus pads and fruits. This variety is very similar to the Indian fig prickly pear. Spineless prickly pears bear sweet fruit with flavor that is compared to kiwi. The fruits of this prickly pear cactus are smaller in size than most and contain smaller seeds than other varieties.
- Purple Prickly Pear. These prickly pears are recognized for a beautiful, light purple hue on the pads. Cooler temperatures, drought, and other stresses on the plant will bring out the blue hue more significantly. The fruits of this prickly pear cactus are mildly sweet in taste.
- Naranjona. Naranjona is a type of cactus fruit with a honey-sweet flavor that has a subtle spice to it. The texture is especially smooth. These cactus fruits are round and orange in color, which is where they get their name from. Naranja is the Spanish word for orange.
- Juana. Juana cactus fruit, also called roja, are a notably tart variety. The juana cactus fruit is round and with purple and reddish toned skin. The seeds are this fruit are chewier than other varieties, making it preferable to some people who enjoy eating the raw fruit and seeds.
- Xoconostle. This species of cactus fruit is very sour and best when used in cooking as opposed to being eaten fresh. This species is also unique in that it has an edible peel, which is sour as well. This cactus fruit may be used in sauces and as a spice. Xoconostle cactus fruit is small and a light yellowish green in color.
If you are interested in the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, knowing a bit about the different types can be helpful knowledge. Likewise, if you are following a recipe which uses prickly pear, be sure to get the suggested species or that the species you use compliments the recipe you are making.
Cooking the Pads of the Prickly Pear Cactus
Just as the fruits of the prickly pear cactus are edible and commonly incorporated into Mexican cuisine, so are the pads of the cactus. As mentioned, they are sold as nopales or nopatilos and are eaten like a vegetable. The pads are thick and fleshy; some may even describe them as appearing slimy before being cooked.
When they are cooked, the flavor of nopales is comparable to green beans. For cooking, nopales are sold whole or can be found cut into strips or cubes for convenience.
Nopales can be cooked in a variety of ways:
- Boiling Nopale. Boiling nopales may require multiple changes of water, because the sap in the pads is very thick and gets released during boiling. Once the nopale is soft and finished boiling, rinse the pads in cold water to remove any sap that may have been in the last batch of water.
- Grilling Nopale. Grilled nopale is tender and should have slightly browned skin.
- Sautéing Nopale. Sautéed nopale will be similar to grilled with a tender texture and browning on the skin.
- Steaming Nopale. Another method of cooking nopale is steaming. This will make the skin and insider texture entirely tender.
Once cooked nopales are very versatile and useful in a wide variety of dishes. Common ways of eating nopales include:
- Tossing into salads
- Cooking into stews and soups
- Adding into omelets
- Baked into breads
- As a side serving of vegetables
- Soaking the noaples in brine and using it as a condiment
Cacti are an intriguing group of plants that are unique in their appearance and resilience in tough terrain. Among cacti, the prickly pear cactus stands out on its own. With all of the uses and benefits from the plant’s fruit and pads, it is no wonder the little plant with a spiky, tough exterior is so widely consumed and enjoyed.
Interest in the cactus fruit is widely growing. Research continues to strengthen the relationship of cactus fruit consumption to health benefits, to the point some are beginning to argue it deserves the title of superfood. The cosmetic industry is just learning of its powerful cosmetic effects and finding new ways to incorporate the prickly pear’s seed oil into beneficial products for consumers.
And of course, the traditional Mexican recipes of cactus fruit and the raw, natural flavor of the fruit are being enjoyed by more and more people. Likewise, those just discovering the fruit are sure to get creative and cultivate new, delicious recipes with it.
Whatever way you come to hear of cactus fruit, you now know what this little fruit is all about, and that it is more than just a passing fad on the market. Share your favorite way of eating or preparing cactus fruit with us below. We’d love to try it out!