OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA
Opuntia are cacti with hundreds of species all native to America.
Opuntia species are found from Patagonia to Alaska, but it is in the dry and warm regions of America that they are the most diversified.
Opuntia ficus indica and Opuntia robusta are native to Mexico.
These two species were selected by humans for their edible "cladodes" and their edible fruits.
These are probably natural hybrids, many cultivated varieties are "spineless".
The 250 or so species of Opuntia are difficult to differentiate, they are similar, have similar flowers and fruits, the same specie develops differently depending on climatic conditions and Opuntia sp. easily hybridize!
The most widely used species (with many varieties) is Opuntia ficus indica and to a lesser extent Opuntia robusta, their cultivated varieties are often without large spines unlike "wild" species.
Opuntia were introduced accidentally sometimes in many countries with hot or Mediterranean climate (examples: Maghreb, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia) as ornamental, edible and medicinal plants, fodder or to make natural fences (hedges) because the majority of Opuntia carry formidable thorns.
The Barbary Fig, Opuntia ficus-indica, is a tree plant that can reach (slowly) 3 to 4 meters.
The most characteristic part of opuntia is their succulent and oblong to spatulate stem : "cladode" or "nopal".
They are flattened stems and not leaves, usually 10 to 40 cm long and 10 to 30 cm wide and 1 to 3 cm thick.
They are connected to each other and can slowly form by lignification what looks like a trunk or a branch.
These cladodes or nopal are chlorophyllian (green) and have many areoles (vegetative points at the base of tiny leaves) from which will come a new cladode, one or more sharp spines, or a flower that will later give a fruit.
They are also covered with fine millimeter needles (glochids) able to become permanently embedded in the skin.
These are plants that defend themselves against herbivores!
"cladodes" or nopal and nopales (in Spanish) and opuntia fruits (or tuna) (pulp and oilseeds) are edible and dietetic.
They contain also interesting substances from a medical point of view.
CHEMICAL COMPOSITION AND PROPERTIES
CLADODES OR NOPAL OF OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA AND RELATED SPECIES
The flattened chlorophyllian stems (cladodes) or nopal are present in all species and varieties of Opuntia.
They have been used, selected and cultivated for a very long time in Mexico in the same way as corn and agave.
They contain a lot of water (on average 80%).
Average composition of the dry cladode (the % varies according to the maturity of the plant):
- water 5%,
- carbohydrates 50 to 55%,
- 5 to 9% proteins,
- lipids 1.5 to 2.5%,
- fibers 10 to 20%,
- mineral ash about 20%
Among the carbohydrates, pectins and polysaccharides that once engorged with water become mucilaginous.
These polysaccharides are a mixture of acidic and neutral compounds of arabinose, galactose, galacturonic acid, rhamnose and xylose.
Among the mineral ashes: potassium 50 to 60 mg / g, calcium 20 to 30 mg / g, magnesium 8 to 12 mg / g, phosphorus 2 to 5 mg / g, less than 1 mg / g of iron, sodium, manganese, zinc and traces of other minerals (lithium, selenium, cobalt, vanadium).
Prickly pear cladode also contain some vitamin C, polyphenols (including tannins) and organic acids.
Since they can be kept for several weeks, there was a time when sailors used them to prevent scurvy during long crossings across the Pacific Ocean from Mexico.
CLADODES of Opuntia protect:
- against DIABETES type 2 (fibers and polysaccharides),
- against OBESITY by decreasing the absorption of fatty substances (lipids) at the intestinal level,
- they may be able to affect the level of blood lipids (cholesterol), but this remains controversial,
- Infusion of dried snowshoes increases diuresis (diuretic) and may limit the formation of urinary stones (urolithiasis).
- reduce blood cholesterol and rebalance LDL-HDL,
- Mucilaginous polysaccharides can PROTECT THE DIGESTIVE MUCOSAL of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum (esophagitis gastritis, duodenitis) and participate in the regularization of intestinal transit (constipation or diarrhea).
FRUIT OF OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA OR TUNA AND RELATED SPECIES
The fruit of the opuntia or prickly pear (or "tuna" in many Spanish-speaking countries) is oblong or rounded, varying in color according to its maturity (from green to yellow to sometimes violet or red).
Its size and weight also vary according to growing conditions and varieties (from 50 to 400g).
The interior of the fruit is without partition, the pulp is red or orange, the seeds are numerous, pale brown, 4mm in diameter.
FRUIT IS COVERED WITH FINE SPINES, glochids, like cladodes.
They must be eliminated before eating, usually by peeling the fruit using a protective glove, or by rubbing the fruits with a cloth and then passing them under a water tap.
OPUNTIA FRUIT PULP contains:
- about 80% water,
- simple sugars: glucose and fructose which give it its sweet taste,
pectins and soluble fibers,
about 5% protein,
organic acids including vitamin C (ascorbic acid),
- mineral salts.
They are NOURISHING and DIETETIC fruits by their content in simple sugar, in vitamin C, in mineral salts and in fibers with the probiotic capacities and REGULATRICES OF INTESTINAL TRANSIT.
THE SEEDS OR PEPINS ARE OLEAGINOUS, they contain an edible and COSMETIC oil very rich in linoleic acid.
Average Triglyceride and Sterol Composition of Prickly Pear Seed Oil (Seeds):
- linoleic acid (omega 6, essential fatty acid) 62%,
- oleic acid (omega 9) 16%,
- palmitic acid (saturated) 11%.
- Sterols: including vitamin E (about 1000mg = 1g per kg), beta-sitosterol, campesterol and stigmasterol.
It is therefore more a cosmetic and protective oil of the skin than a food oil (oil rather rare and containing a lot of omega 6 and not enough omega 3).
It has an ANTIBIOTIC, ANTIFUNGAL and HEALING power, verified in the laboratory and on animals.
OTHER COMPONENTS INTERESTING IN OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA AND OTHER OPUNTIA SPECIES
The FRUIT (envelope and pulp) are colored by pigments (betalaines) including betanin (red-purple) and indicaxanthin (orange-yellow).
They can stain urine if you eat a good amount of ripe fruit.
They are antioxidant well assimilated by the body and can attenuate inflammatory reactions or participate in the "detoxification" of the body.
Fruits and cladodes or nopal contain selenium in small amounts but sufficient to help the body fight against many degenerative diseases, including cancer.
OPUNTIA, COCHINEAL INSECTS AND THE PIGMENT CARMIN
A small parasitic insect of opuntia, Dactylopius coccus or cochineal of opuntia, contains a very red chemical substance repellent for their predators, carminic acid.
It is a natural red anthraquinone dye without significant toxicity and therefore usable in food (as well as for dyeing fabrics).
The PIGMENT CARMIN, can be synthesized or chemically manipulated (with aluminum salts) which may give rise to an additional toxic and allergic risk.
Cochineal insects are raised on particular varieties of Opuntia (Mexico, Canary Islands, South America)
BARBARY FIG OPUNTIA , PRICKLY PEAR , OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA, EDIBLE AND DIETETIC
YOUNG STEMS OF OPUNTIA (CLADODES OR NOPAL) are used fresh in salad or after cooking in sweet dishes or with meat or vegetables.
The older cladodes are often more astringent (presence of tannins).
The recipes are varied according to the country ( nopal is a traditional food in Mexico, and in South America).
They can also be cooked after dessication and rehydration, canned (like green beans or spinach) or in powder form as a dietary supplement.
CLADODES OF OPUNTIA ARE NOURISHING but also DIETETIC by their mucilage content which "cuts" your appetite, delays digestion (and protects the digestive mucosa) and provides the body with minerals (including calcium) .
The regular consumption of (juvenile) rackets of prickly pear (fresh, canned or dried) is useful:
- as an accompaniment to a low calorie diet TO TRY TO LOSE WEIGHT,
- and therefore in case of DIABETES type 2 associated with overweight,
- to help rebalance the level of cholesterol (LDL-HDL) and prevent athero-arteriosclerosis and associated cardiovascular disorders,
- in case of chronic GASTRITIS, HEARTBURNS, or in combination with an anti-ulcer treatment (stomach-duodenum),
- to regulate intestinal transit, diarrhea or constipation.
The cladodes or nopal of opuntia are marketed also in the form of capsules of powder, easier to preserve.
Dosage depends on the size of the capsules, comply with the indications of the laboratory.
It is best to ingest these capsules about 1/2 hour before the meal especially when looking for an appetite suppressant effect (slimming diet or for type 2 diabetes).
Opuntia capsules are often found to be beneficial to other appetite-lowering or blood cholesterol regulating plants.
Stop in case of intolerance: allergy or intestinal disorders.
FRUIT from the prickly pear are appreciated for their taste and their capacity to regulate the digestive transit (stomach and intestine), they are consumed fresh, in juice, in sorbet, in jam.
Opuntia fruits are present on the markets of many countries, in Mexico of course, but also in the Andean region of South America (Ecuador, Peru, Chile) and in the Mediterranean countries, particularly in North Africa, but also in Italy and Spain.
They are generally grown without pesticides.
OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA AS FORAGE
In a document dating from the late 2000s Opuntia was grown, globally, for fodder and animal feed in general, on 900 000 ha, compared to only 100 000 ha of culture for the fruit of Opuntia (tuna).
In arid areas planting prickly pears and other species of opuntia can be a solution to repeated droughts.
CLADODES of Opuntia are a source of water and are quite nutritious for the animals while waiting for a better fodder.
They are sometimes crushed and mixed with straw or other ruminant-tolerated feed sources.
The majority of cultivated varieties are without sharp spines.
Wild species or varieties are often covered with dangerous thorns for cattle, and are eliminated by burning them with a torch or wood fire before giving them to the animals.
The use of prickly pears and related species as fodder is common: in Mexico, Argentina, Texas and neighboring states, North Africa and Southern Africa.
CULTIVATION OF OPUNTIA FICUS INDICA
There are modern techniques of propagation of interesting varieties, but they are delicate .
More simply, we can use the seeds (but it's quite long) or CLADOSES (it's the simplest and fastest way):
Cut a cladode (nopal) at its base, wait 2 to 3 weeks until the cut heals and dries, then plant the cladode into the ground by pushing it halfway up.
The cuttings will develop a root system faster if the soil is a little wet.
Some recommend using a cutting with two cladodes to accelerate the initial growth of the cactus.
Prickly pears and other Opuntia with many horticultural varieties also serve as decorative plants in apartments or gardens, help to combat soil desertification and are very useful for wild animals in desert or arid areas.
CAUTION : do not introduce Opuntia cactus in areas where they could spread easily and become an INVASIVE PLANT.
There are unfortunately many examples like in Australia and New Caledonia .
AN EDIBLE AND MEDICINAL CACTUS
The prickly pear and similar species have flattened stems or cladodes or nopal that can be eaten as a vegetable or crudity. They are vitaminized and nourishing, regulate the digestive system, help to lose weight, control type 2 diabetes and the balance of blood lipids (cholesterol).
The fruits are pleasant to taste and vitaminized, they contain seeds that provide a cosmetic vegetable oil.
Prickly pears are used as fodder (cattle, sheep, goats) in areas with prolonged drought, they are easy to cultivate, to spread but can become invasive.
Copyright 2019 : Dr Jean-Michel Hurtel