Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 7 (2014) 11–19
Opuntia cladodes (nopal): Emerging
functional food and dietary supplement
Bioinformatics and Medical Informatics Research Center, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA
Received 4 October 2013; accepted 13 November 2013
Abstract. Opuntia cacti are found in proliﬁc abundance in arid regions of the world. The ﬂeshy stems (paddles or nopals)
have been a staple vegetable in many parts of Latin America (Central America and Mexico) since long. Even the Southwest
US population have developed an interest in them. Now, they have been validated to be good sources of vital phytonutrients viz.
dietary ﬁbres, vitamins, minerals, mucilage, pectin. The succulent pads packed with nutrition are envisioned to be imbibed in foods
for nutritional augmentation. Apart from additives, the mucilage-opulent cladodes have shown promise as encapsulating agents.
Several biological roles of nopal viz. antioxidant, anti-inﬂammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-ulcerogenic, anticancer, and hypoglycaemic
have been authenticated. This review embodies the recent ﬁndings, risks associated, current trends of investigations and untapped
potentials of this xerophytic resource. Wide consumption and mass cultivation of nopal is expected to play the dual role of
supplying nutrition and averting food insecurity.
Keywords: Nopal, functional food, antioxidant, anti-inﬂammation, antidiabetic
Meeting the demand of nutritious food for the ever-expanding, world population is a huge challenge. Amidst this
grim scenario, discovery of an inexpensive yet wholesome natural food source can be a great relief. In this regard,
the xerophytes cacti hold immense promise. The cladodes of several cacti belonging to family Cactaceae have been
evaluated to be safe and healthy, worthy of inclusion in food platter. So far, Opuntia ﬁcus-indica or prickly pear
cladodes (paddle or nopal) have gained fair popularity.
The spines on the paddles are removed and the ﬂeshy pads are consumed fresh, cooked, dried or as juice (Fig. 1).
The paddles are full of antioxidants, dietary ﬁbres, vitamins (A, B complex and C) and minerals (Ca, Mg and Fe).
Even, the erstwhile civilizations of Central America, the Aztec and Maya people devoured them. The paddles have
been a staple of Mexican cuisine since pre-Hispanic era. They have recently gained popularity in the USA, especially
in Latino (California, Arizona) and Tejano (Texas)-populated regions. Several species of Opuntia grow wild in
deserts, high altitude volcanic regions of Mexico, and chaparrals of US Southwest (Fig. 2). O. ﬁcus-indica is farmed
in several thousands of hectares in the arid and semiarid regions of Mexico and the paddles are shipped in tons to
Since ancient times, nopal is being used in folk medicine to cure a variety of ailments. It’s used as anti-infective,
anti-diarrheal, diuretic and anti-rheumatic. The tea from the cladodes is used to ease colds, coughs, boils, abscesses,
cystitis, indigestion, gastroeneteritis, diabetes, high blood cholesterol etc. A diverse range of nopal-based snacks and
dietary supplements are now marketed in Mexican and USA markets. This review endeavours to furnish a distilled
account of recent ﬁndings and prospects ahead, which is believed to drive consumer awareness for this healthy yet
∗Corresponding author: Seema Patel, Bioinformatics and Medical Informatics Research Center, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile
Dr., San Diego, CA 92182, USA. Tel.: +9409811629; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ISSN 1973-798X/14/$27.50 © 2014 – IOS Press and the authors. All rights reserved
12 S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food
Fig. 1. (A) Opuntia cladode (B) Opuntia growing wild in slopes of South California.
Fig. 2. Biological roles of Opuntia cladodes.
2. Nutritional importance of nopal
Persuasive instances exist to authenticate the food and nutritional supplement potentials of nopal. The recent
validated ﬁndings have been discussed below.
3. Food and additives
Nopal tastes tart and is slimy in consistency. It’s consumed in myriad forms viz. raw, grilled or cooked. It’s relished
as tortilla, frittata, fajita, fry, salsa, burrito, salad, soup, stew, jerky juice, smoothie, yoghurt or tamale. Even top
restaurants offer nopal-based delicacies. The possibility of fortifying wheat ﬂour with O. boldinghii Britton cladode
ﬂour for bread making was evaluated. The substitution at 5–10% demonstrated the best baking behaviour and sensory
appeal, with regards to colour, odour, ﬂavour; texture development .
Apart from the organoleptic properties, nopal deserves to be incorporated in regular diet for its dietary ﬁbres,
prebiotic potential, vitamins and antimicrobial compounds. The ﬁbre contents of Opuntia cladodes were assessed
for possible development of functional foods . Also, the effect on the expression of GPR43 (a short chain fatty
acids receptor involved in signal transduction mechanisms) was evaluated. This receptor binds with butyrate to
generate different physiological effects in colonocytes. Opuntia diet at 5% concentration had a direct inﬂuence on
the quantitative expression of GPR43 . The prebiotic effect of O. ﬁcus-indica cladode mucilage and pectic-derived
S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food 13
Fig. 3. Opuntia cladode as a prebiotic.
oligosaccharides on the cultures and metabolic activity of microbes from the human colon was investigated. The
mucilage-derived oligosaccharide treatment enhanced the lactobacilli growth up to 23.8%, while pectic-derived
oligosaccharides increased the biﬁdobacteria population by 25%. Addition of these oligosaccharides led to a slight
decrease in pathogens as Enterococci,Staphylococci and Clostridia. Increased levels of the short-chain fatty acids
(SCFA) were attained in the beneﬁcial bacteria cultures by both types of oligosaccharides treatments. Propionate and
butyrate production increased to at least 50%. The ﬁndings indicate that nopal could be tapped as a prebiotic source
. The prebiotic mechanism of nopal-derived oligosaccharides has been illustrated in Fig. 3.
The folate content of nopal was assessed by a microbiological assay, using Lactobacillus casei (ATCC 7469)
in enzymatically-treated extracts, to release the bound vitamin. Trienzyme treatment (alpha-amylase-protease-
conjugase) and ELISA protocol determined the folate content at nanogram level .
Natural antimicrobial compounds are often sought after to hold back the spoilage microorganisms. The efﬁcacy
of methanolic extracts of O. ﬁcus-indica against Vibrio cholera was determined. Four ﬂuorogenic techniques were
recruited to assess the effect of the extract on membrane integrity of the pathogen. The extract disrupted the cell mem-
branes and raised permeability, leading to decreased cytoplasmic pH and dwindled cellular ATP concentration .
4. Edible ﬁlm and encapsulating agent
Nopal mucilage has demonstrated promise as edible ﬁlm encapsulating agent for pharmaceutical applications. It
was extracted and characterized by its composition and molecular weight distribution. The ability to form edible
ﬁlms under different pH conditions and in presence or absence of calcium was determined. It was observed that
mucilage ﬁlms without addition of calcium have the best water vapour barrier properties and tensile strength . The
microcapsules of gallic acid were generated, using nopal mucilage, which demonstrated pseudoplastic behaviour.
The results indicated that mucilage could be used as wall material for microencapsulation of gallic acid by the spray-
drying process . A cheap and effective natural excipient was developed from the mucilages of O. ﬁcus-indica
and O. stricta. These mucilages showed promise as substitutes of sodium carboxymethylcellulose (NaCMC) for
suspending function in paracetamol formulations .
5. Oxidative stress and toxicity mitigation
Nopal has shown ability to improve oxidative status and alleviate stress. The biological effects of consuming
tortillas or bars supplemented with nopal dietary ﬁbre was evaluated. The addition of nopal increased the ﬁbre and
polyphenols content in both foods. The trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity, polyphenols and vitamin C content
increased in volunteer’s plasma after intake. Also, lower levels of glucose, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein
and triglycerides were observed in plasma after the supplementation . Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
is associated with multiple factors such as obesity, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress. The effect of nopal
14 S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food
consumption on the development of hepatic steatosis and hepatic oxidative stress was assessed, emphasizing on
the regulation of genes involved in hepatic lipid metabolism. Obese rats fed with a diet containing 4% nopal for
7 week had 50% lower hepatic triacylglycerol than the control group. Also, reduction in hepatomegaly (abnormal
enlargement of liver) and biomarkers of hepatocyte injury such as alanine aminotransferase (ALAT) and aspartate
aminotransferases (ASAT) were observed. Hepatic reactive oxygen species and lipid peroxidation biomarkers were
signiﬁcantly lower in rats fed nopal compared to the control rats. Furthermore, rats fed the nopal diet had a lower
postprandial serum insulin concentration and a greater liver phosphorylated protein kinase B (pAKT):AKT ratio in
the postprandial state .
The fusarial mycotoxins zearalenone is often associated with detrimental food poisoning, leading to reproductive
disorders. The safety and efﬁcacy of O. ﬁcus cladodes in prevention of the deleterious effects of the toxin was
evaluated in mice models. The combined treatment of zearalenone with the lowest tested dose of cactus extracts
(25 mg/kg) showed a total reduction of the toxin-induced oxidative damage for all tested markers . The potency
of cactus cladode extract in counteracting the Aﬂatoxin B1-induced alterations in oxidative stress markers was
investigated. Healthy BALB/c (20–25 g) male mice were pre-treated by intraperitonial administration of O. ﬁcus-
indica (50 mg/Kg) for 2 weeks. The extract increased the expression of pro-apoptotic proteins p53 and bax while
decreasing the expression of bcl2. The treatment, before or after exposure to the toxin, led to a major slump in the
induced oxidative damage markers and bolstered antioxidant defence, eventually curbing hepatic damage . The
protective effects of regular ingestion of juice of O. ﬁcus indica cladode juice against nickel chloride (NiCl2) toxicity
were evaluated in rat models. The test animals were given 25% of the juice for one month followed by daily injection
of NiCl2for 10 days. Signiﬁcant increases in lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), ASAT, ALAT activities and as well
as raised cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose levels were observed in the blood of control group. These adverse
changes were not detected in the nopal-administered group which indicates the protective effect of the cactus .
The role of O. ﬁcus indica cladode extract against liver damage induced in mice by an organophosphorous insecticide,
the chlorpyrifos was investigated. Both chlorpyrifos and cactus extract were administrated orally via gavages. The
combined treatment resulted in the normalization of ALAT, ASAT, PAL, LDH, cholesterol and albumin levels in
the serum . It was reported that following ingestion of nopal-based tortillas, overall oxidative status of healthy
human volunteers improved . O. humifusa cladodes were investigated for their antioxidant content. The ethyl
acetate fraction from an 80% ethanol extract showed high total phenolic and ﬂavonoid contents. compared to other
fractions. The ﬂavanol taxifolin was identiﬁed to be the most abundant phenolic compound . O. ﬁcus-indica
cladode extract when injected intraperitoneally alone or with methotrexate drug for 10 days to rats, could check the
side effects caused by the drug. The extract restored the decreased hematocrit, hemoglobin, white blood cells and
increased the serum biochemical enzyme activities .
6. Joint pain relief
Osteoarthritis is known to be a debilitating disease for which natural remedies are constantly sought-after. The anti-
inﬂammatory effect of lyophilised extracts obtained from O. ﬁcus indica (L.) cladode was determined and compared
with that of hyaluronic acid. The key molecules (nitric oxide (NO), glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), prostaglandins
(PGE2) and reactive oxygen species (ROS)) released from the pro-inﬂammatory cytokine interleukin-1␤(IL-1␤)-
stimulated human chondrocyte cultures were measured. Further, the antioxidant effect of these extracts was evaluated
by DPPH test. The chondro-protective effect of the extracts by suppression of harmful effects of IL-1␤was revealed.
Also, its superiority over hyaluronic acid in ameliorating the arthritic pain came forth . The effect of calcium
intake from a vegetable source on bone mineral density and calciuria in menopausal and non-menopausal women
with low bone mass was evaluated. The two-year study revealed that the consumption of nopal improved bone mineral
density in the total hip and lumbar spine regions, maintaining constant and normal calciuria levels .
7. Wound healing
Plant polysaccharides have oft-been validated to possess wound healing properties. In this regard, the potential
of two lyophilized polysaccharide extracts obtained from O. ﬁcus-indica (L.) cladodes was evaluated in rat injury
S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food 15
models. When topically applied for 6 days, the polysaccharides exerted a repairing effect on the cutaneous lesions.
Re-epithelization and remodelling by inﬂuencing the cell-matrix interactions and modulating laminin deposition was
derived to be the therapeutic mechanism. It was observed that polysaccharides with molecular weight ranging from
104–106Da and hygroscopic, rheological and viscoelastic attributes are better suited for wound-nursing .
8. Cancer prevention
Selenium is an essential micro-nutrient with crucial role in redox reactions and ability to curb oxidative stress in
cells. Several studies have reported the anti-metastatic capacity of dietary selenium supplementation . A series
of spectroscopic and enzymatic digestion tests were conducted to detect selenium in the cladodes of opuntia. It
was concluded that opuntia is a secondary selenium-accumulating plant whose cladode contain mostly free seleno-
cystathionine and SeMet. When consumed, the organic forms in the cladode are expected to improve health by
augmenting selenium intake and thus, help in prevention of multiple human cancers . O. ﬁcus-indica extract was
investigated for its efﬁcacy against benzo(a)pyrene-induced liver injury and related mechanisms in Balb/C mice. The
genotoxin triggers DNA damage as manifested in chromosomal aberrations of bone marrow cells. Also, it promotes
the expression of bcl2, lowering that of bax. The cactus extract administered prior to or following the toxin exposure,
negated the detrimental effects. Modulation of the expression of p53 was elucidated to be the protective mechanism
against the mutagenesis risk .
9. Diabetes management
Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic syndrome characterized by abnormally high blood glucose level. Nopal is the
most commonly used herbal hypoglycaemic among people of Mexican descent. A systematic review of 58 controlled
clinical trials was conducted on individuals with diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance. Nopal showed positive
preliminary results, warranting further research . Also, a survey on perception of Hispanics regarding diabetes
was conducted. Many of them responded that nopal consumption can attenuate the risk of the metabolic disorder
. The hypoglycaemic effects of polysaccharides, prepared from O. monacantha cladodes were determined. It
decreased the water consumption, increased food intake and improved the control in blood glucose and serum lipid
levels of streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. The mechanism of hypoglycemic action was assumed to be similar
with anti-diabetic drug, dimethylbiguanide . The inﬂuence of ethnicity as a predictor of the use of complementary
and alternative medicine (CAM) among diabetes patients was evaluated. A questionnaire was administered to 806
participants, to which Hispanics reported using nopal as CAM . It was determined whether O. humifusa stem
regulates blood glucose levels and hypolipidemic responses in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. After 7 weeks
of treatment, the fasting blood glucose and triglyceride levels of the opuntia groups were signiﬁcantly lower when
compared to control group. Decrease in serum total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, ALAT and ASAT
was reported. On the other hand, increase in serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and relative beta cell volume
of pancreas was observed . The effects of O. ﬁcus-indica complex on blood glucose metabolism were investigated
in db/db mice for a period of 4 weeks. Histopathological analysis showed that the morphology of pancreatic islets was
improved in the Opuntia-treated db/db mice. Histochemical and immunological tests conﬁrmed the enhanced insulin
production from the pancreatic islets and increase in the number of ␤-cells . The effects of an O. ﬁcus-indica
cladode aqueous extract and a proprietary stem/fruit skin-blend (stem/fruit skin ratio 75/25) on blood glucose and
plasma insulin was investigated in normal rats. Oral administration of the extract in a dose range of 6–176 mg/kg
exerted maximum effect on blood glucose and insulin. The proprietary blend signiﬁcantly increased the basal plasma
insulin level indicating a direct action and superior effect than the extract on the pancreatic beta cells . The effects
of a dietary pattern (a blend of soy protein, nopal, chia seed and oat) on the cardiovascular disease and diabetes
were evaluated. In this randomized trial, the dietary pattern group had decreased serum total glycerol and C-reactive
protein. Also, the participants in this group had a greater decrease in body weight . The anti-hyperglycemic effects
of two extracts of O. streptacantha cladodes were investigated. The ﬁltered extracts contained (4-hydroxy)-phenyl
acetic acid derivate which when administered to STZ-diabetic rats before oral glucose tolerance test, improved the
16 S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food
glycaemic control by blocking the hepatic glucose output, especially in the fasting state . Korean Food and Drug
Administration (KFDA) also approves O. streptacantha as an effective antidiabetic herbal ingredient .
10. Effect of processing, maturity and cultivars
The effects of air-drying ﬂow rates on the amount and antioxidant capacity of O. ﬁcus indica cladode extracts
were evaluated. Nopal drying at 45◦C and air ﬂow rate of 3m/sec showed higher values of phenols, ﬂavonoids and
ﬂavonols. The air ﬂow rate affected the amount of polyphenols and radical scavenging, but did not modify the chain-
breaking activity and the low-density lipoprotein inhibition activity . The effect of convective drying on bioactive
components and rheology of nopal was assessed. The best conditions for bioactive compound preservation were the
drying temperature of 45◦C and air ﬂow rate of 3 m/s which resulted in 40.97 g phenols, 23.41 g ﬂavonoids, 0.543g
␤-carotene and 0.2815 g ascorbic acid/kg. Non-Newtonian shear-thinning behaviour was ascertained for samples
dried at this temperature . The enzymatic hydrolysis of cactus cladode homogenate with a blend of Rapidase and
Viscozyme (1:3, v/v) increased the quercetin and isorhamnetin contents, contributing to increase radical scavenging
activity . The cladode with peels and without were powdered and compared for their dietary ﬁber content. The
powder with peels contained higher soluble ﬁber content which was assumed to be due to the mucilage content of
The physicochemical and nutrimental contents O. ﬁcus indica (Redonda variety) fresh nopal and its powder
produced at different stages of maturity were compared. The ash content increased from 18.41 to 23.24%, calcium
content increased from 1.52 to 3.72%, while phosphorous dropped off from 0.43 to 0.27%, respectively. Calcium
oxalate decreased from 7.95 to 3.47 mg/g and the Ca/P ratio varied from 3.6–11. The soluble ﬁbre decreased from
25.22 to 14.91%, while the insoluble ﬁbre increased from 29.87 to 41.65% . It was found that the older cladodes
contained more calcium . Nopal powders from three different maturity stages were subjected to various methods
of drying. Among the freeze-dried, forced-air oven and tunnel method, freeze-dried proved to be the most efﬁcient
in retention of higher contents of protein, soluble ﬁbre, fat and colour. The soluble ﬁbres decreased with the age of
nopal, while insoluble ﬁbers and ash content increased . The nutritive value of 16 cultivars and clones of spineless
cladodes were evaluated and wide variation in dry matter, Ca, K and oxalates were reported .
11. Anticipated risks
It was reviewed that the copious mucilage, spines and pathogen sensitivity are the hurdles in the path of popularity
of nopal as a vegetable. Eliminating these undesirable characteristics might boost its approval . Nopal is prone
to contamination with salmonella from water and soil, causing risks to the consumer health. So, proper disinfection
should be taken care of. Many phytochemicals have pharmacokinetic or pharmacodynamic interactions with drugs.
The undesirable herbal interactions between opuntia and anti-diabetic agents (glipizide and metformin), resulting in
abnormal hypoglycaemia were reviewed. The underlying mechanism might be the resultant of the additive glucose
lowering effect of the cactus and the drugs. It mandates that the patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus should be
routinely counselled about the use of herbal products to minimize the risk of adverse drug reactions .
12. Current standing and future trends
The formulation of cladode-based balanced diet for ruminants is on the verge of commercialization . This
might be possible for human consumption as well, given due interest. Improvement of visual appeal, handling ease
and nutritional characteristics of nopal is sure to gain more consumers. Vast swathes of arid, barren lands can be
reclaimed by planting these xerophytic vegetables. The cactus industry in Mexico alone is worth $150 million and
employs 10,000 workers. Also, it is being grown as cash crop in Central America and Israel. Nopal horticulture ought
to be promoted with proper incentives to farmers. Annual Nopal fair (Feria de Nopales) is organized in Mexico and
several places in US southwest to motivate people to consume nopal. Microbial fermentation is being regarded as a
S. Patel / Opuntia cladodes as nutritious food 17
strategy for valorisation of nopal. It is touted to be a plant-origin substitute of chitosan. In recent times, chitosan has
gained credence as low calorie, food additive with ability to bring satiety . Nopal possessing similar properties
might also be useful in tackling weight issues and obesity.
To wrap up the topic, nopal has a pool of dietary ﬁbers, phenolic compounds, minerals and vitamins. Further, the
physical properties as water retention, oil holding and swelling capacities, non-Newtonian ﬂow behaviour make it
desirable for food processing. It is emerging not only as a gourmet, but also a wholesome diet. Additionally, it has
incredible potential to be developed as effective dietary supplements and alternative medicines at affordable cost. Its
antioxidant abundance could be tapped to detoxify body and minimize the risk of chronic ailments. More clinical
trials should be undertaken to dig out its hitherto unknown health beneﬁts. Wider cultivation and consumption must
be given a thrust. This review is believed to stimulate research in nopal and contribute to bioprospecting.
Conﬂict of interest
There is no conﬂict of interest in submission of this manuscript.
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