One of the fruits that I grew to love this summer in Lebanon was the prickly pear — known as cactus fruit or subbair. These seed-studded fruits grow wild on my father-in-law’s property around his house. And I would love to eat these succulent fruits for breakfast. I was amazed at the markets near his house where the cactus fruit would be stacked high on display…and the peeling of this thorny, desert fruit was turned into an art form.
Prickly pear cactus has a long history in Mexico and Rick Bayless writes lovingly about the fruit (tunas) in his cookbook Mexican Kitchen, which features Crimson Prickly Pear Sauce.
Now it seems this ancient fruit Opuntia ficus indica (eaten for 9,000 years) may be the next big thing. One of the trendiest drinks in the Southwest is the Prickly Pear Margarita and the flavor is showing up in a range of new-age beverages, including energy drinks, juices, flavored teas (including Snapple) and functional beverages. Prickly pear is gaining popularity in the alternative medicine world and dietary supplements of the fruit in powder or pill are now stocked in health food stores and marketed online.
One prickly pear-flavored drink called Urban Detox claims the beverage can help with a hangover. Curiously, there does seem to be a study from Tulane that attempts to support this claim, however, the research was conducted with an extract from prickly pear, not with this drink. The company claims benefits from the anti-inflammatory properties of the fruit. An animal study from the University of Arizona found that the pectin isolated from the fruit helped bring down LDL cholesterol levels.
One company is beginning to market a line of prickly pear extracts for use in foods and beverages to “support healthy glucose levels.” Some preliminary research suggests that fiber-rich prickly pear fruit may help reduce blood sugar levels, but it’s too early to draw major conclusions.
Plus, you won’t be helping your blood sugar all that much if you indulge in the most popular forms of prickly pear — candy, jellies, syrups and sweet beverages. You’re better off with the whole fruit — which is widely available in the Southwest, but increasingly found in supermarkets and farmer’s markets throughout the country.
It’s overkill to put prickly pear too high on a health pedestal, but this is a nutritious fruit — high in vitamin C, fiber and phytonutrients known as flavonoids. So if you can find prickly pears near you, check them out. They have a devoted following, including Carolyn Niethammer who has assembled a collection of recipes in the Prickly Pear Cookbook. But if you’re new to prickly pear, you may find the pebble-like seeds in the fruit a little hard to get used to — but stick with the fruit instead of the pills or “functional” drinks. Although, the margarita sounds like it’s worth a try.