You may have seen jams, jellies or health supplements at your local store that were made from the prickly pear. After seeing those you probably wondered “what is a prickly pear?”
The prickly pear is a species of cactus that is native to the Americas. The prickly pear goes by several names including Indian fig opuntia, barbary fig, and cactus pear.
The word “cactus” is derived from the Greek word “kaktos” which means prickly plant. The prickly pear bears flowers that grow into a fruit that also goes by the name prickly pear.
The fruit of the prickly pear is sometimes referred to as a “tuna.”
The pads of the prickly pear, which are the flat green parts covered in spines, are referred to as cladodes in English and are referred to as nopal (singular), nopales (plural), or nopalitos in Spanish.
Nopalitos are the tender young cactus pads, which are preferable for eating, as opposed to the older, tougher pads.
The prickly pear grows in the southwestern United States, Mexico, Sicily, Algeria, Chile, Brazil and northern Africa.
The Texas state legislature selected the prickly pear cactus as their official state plant in 1995. They chose the prickly pear because it is rugged, beautiful, and versatile. 
What is a Prickly Pear?
The prickly pear is a member of the genus Optunia. There are many species of Opuntia.
But, the one that people usually associate with the term “prickly pear” for culinary usage is Opuntia ficus-indica.
The prickly pear cactus scientific name has changed through history. The early European botanists called it Ficus indica at first.
In the book Species Plantarum, it was referred to as Cactus opuntia and C ficus-indica.
In 1768, Miller combined these names into the scientific name we use today which is Opuntia ficus-indica or O. ficus-indica.
Prickly Pear Benefits and Uses
There are many prickly pear benefits and all parts of the prickly pear are useful. The fruit and pads of the prickly pear are grown for consumption by both humans and animals.
Prickly pears are a low-calorie food, containing 42 calories per 100 grams. 
Humans consume prickly pear fruit and pads in many different forms such as:
In some parts of the world fresh prickly pear pads are used as a food source for animals. In fact, in the dairy industry of Mexico, cows that eat new prickly pear pads produce milk and butter that is prized because of its unique flavor.
The flowers of the prickly pear are also edible. The fruit and flowers of the prickly pear are used as natural coloring agents.
The seeds of prickly pear fruit, when dried and finely ground, can be used as a gluten-free baking flour. They also are a source of oil used in food and cosmetics.
The pads of the prickly pear cactus contain mucilage which has shown potential as a water purifier, a natural food coating, and a fabric stiffener. 
The mucilage from the prickly pear can be used as a soothing skin treatment similar to aloe vera gel. Prickly pear can also be used as a mosquito repellent.
M. Sanzeau de Purberneau, discovered that when prickly pear pads were chopped up and thrown into water that the mucilage in the pads would float on top of the water and prevent mosquitos from breeding in the water for several weeks. 
Prickly Pear Health Benefits
What does the research say about prickly pear health benefits?
Prickly pear is rich in antioxidants, pigments, and phenolic acids and contains biopeptides and soluble fiber.
Prickly pear fruit has also been demonstrated to inhibit the growth of cancer cells in mice.
Traditionally, prickly pear has been used to treat burns, edema, hyperlipidemia, whooping cough, and asthma.
Prickly Pear and Weight Loss
Studies have shown that prickly pear may have the potential to help people trying to lose weight.
In one study, 125 people who were either obese or overweight were tested to see how they responded to a weight loss regimen that included Litramine, a natural fiber supplement made from the prickly pear.
In this study, which lasted 12 weeks, the participants were divided into two groups.
One group took a placebo. The other group took Litramine. Both groups exercised moderately and ate a reduced calorie diet.
At the end of the study, the participants who took Litramine lost at least 5% more weight than the participants who took the placebo.
Also, the body mass index, body fat composition, and waist circumference decreased much more in the group that took the Litramine than in the group that took the placebo. 
Prickly Pear Nutrition
Wondering about prickly pear nutrition? One hundred grams of prickly pear fruit or fruit juice (from raw prickly pears) contains:
The seeds of the prickly pear are also a source of nutrients. One hundred grams of prickly pear seeds contain:
- 47 mg of calcium
- 53.2 mg of potassium
- 11.7 mg of magnesium
- 162.7mg of phosphorus
Prickly Pear Oil
Prickly pear oil, which comes from the seeds of the prickly pear, is rich in linoleic, oleic, and palmitic acids.
The seeds also contain small amounts of myristic, stearic, and arachidonic acids.
The fatty acids present in prickly pear oil make it a soothing additive to natural beauty products.
It is used in anti-aging and anti-inflammatory treatments. The flowers of the prickly pear contain an essential oil which is used to make perfume.
Prickly Pear Extract
Prickly pear extract is an antioxidant. It contains quercetin and ascorbic acid.
The extract of prickly pear may have some potential in the fight against Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
In one study, which was performed on yeast and flies, prickly pear extract was demonstrated to disrupt some of the signs of neurodegeneration normally associated with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. 
How to Eat Prickly Pear
Are you asking yourself “can you eat a prickly pear?” The answer is “yes!”
You can eat prickly pear. The fruit, the pads, the flowers, and the seeds of the prickly pear are all edible.
However, before attempting to make something from prickly pears, make sure you learn how to prepare prickly pear.
The prickly pear can be challenging to prepare if you haven’t done so before. It is covered in large spines, and smaller spines called glochids.
When you have some prickly pear fruit that is free from glochids the next step is to decide how to eat it.
To eat the fruit, simply cut off both ends, make an incision in the peel from one end to the other, and remove the peel.
You can eat the fruit as it is, or process it further into jam, jelly, or other edible treats.
To enjoy the fresh prickly pear fruit, you can eat it like an apple, or slice it and put it on salad. You can eat the seeds.
But, they are hard, so many people remove them. You can also use the fresh fruit to make your prickly pear juice.
To make prickly pear cactus juice, put the fresh fruit into a blender and turn it on high.
You can also use a juicer to make prickly pear juice. After you have turned the fruit into a puree, press the fruit through a sieve to separate the seeds and fibers from the prickly pear cactus juice. Y
ou can drink the juice as is or you can use it in recipes to make smoothies, fruit drinks, and gelatin desserts.
The Taste of a Prickly Pear
After seeing the prickly pear fruit either in the wild or at your local grocery store you probably wondered “what does prickly pear taste like?”
Many people describe the flavor as being mild and sweet like a watermelon, or a blend of melon and pear.
Some say that it tastes like a kiwi fruit but that it is not as sweet.
Others have said that it tastes like a sweet cucumber. Many factors can affect the flavor of the fruit including how ripe the fruit is and under what environmental conditions the fruit was grown.
Prickly pear pads have been described as having a flavor that is similar to asparagus, green beans or bell peppers.
Others describe the flavor as being a blend of okra and green pepper. The flavor depends on how they are prepared.
How To Prepare Prickly Pear
To prepare the fruit of the prickly pear, you must first get the fruit off of the cactus without getting stabbed by the large spines and the tiny spines, also known as glochids, which cover its exterior.
There are different ways to do this. Some people wear thick gardening gloves.
If you choose this route, look for gloves that are made to resist thorns, like blackberry or rose gloves.
Other people remove the fruit with tongs. Some people burn the spines off of the fruit while it is still on the cactus.
Regardless of the method you choose, be sure to wear long-sleeved clothing to protect your body from the spines.
When harvesting the fruit, look for purple prickly pear fruit. It is the dark red or deep purple prickly pear fruit that is the ripest.
If you have removed the fruit before removing the glochids, you will need to remove them at this time. To do this, run a fire over the exterior to remove the glochids.
Alternatively, you can boil them until the glochids fall off. A third way to get the glochids off is to put the fruit into a bowl and pour running water over it until the spines come off.
If this sounds like too much, you can always buy the fruit at a store that carries them. If you obtain them this way, the glochids should already be removed.
To prepare prickly pear pads, you should either burn the spines and glochids off before harvesting or wear gardening gloves to protect your hands. Use a knife to remove the pads from the cactus.
If you harvest younger pads, the spines won’t be as sharp. After you have collected the pads, use a knife or a potato peeler to scrape off the spines (if you didn’t remove them earlier).
After preparing the pads, either use them or freeze them.
How to eat prickly pear pads. To prepare the pads for eating, wash them and cut them into strips or cubes.
You can eat them as is or you can add freshly chopped pads to salads. They can also be pickled, sauteed, grilled or boiled. Prickly pear pads contain mucilage with a texture similar to okra.
Boiling the pads prior to adding them to recipes helps to remove some of the mucilage.
Prickly Pear Recipes
The prickly pear can be enjoyed in many different ways. Here are some prickly pear recipes to try.
Prickly Pear Tea
This recipe combines refreshing peppermint and spearmint with citrus peels and prickly pear fruit.
To make this recipe you will need:
- 1 tablespoon dried peppermint leaf
- 1 tablespoon dried spearmint leaf
- 1 tablespoon dried orange peel
- 1 tablespoon dried lemon peel
- 1 tablespoon dried prickly pear fruit
Combine all ingredients into one or more heat-sealable teabags and seal.
To prepare the prickly pear tea, put the teabag into a mug and pour boiling water over it.
Let it sit for ten minutes and then remove the bag. Add your favorite sweetener and enjoy.
Quick and Easy Sugar-Free Prickly Pear Syrup
This prickly pear syrup recipe is designed to be easy.
To make this recipe you will need:
- 1 cup (8 ounces) prickly pear cactus juice
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 4 drops stevia
Put the prickly pear juice into a pot.
Put the pot on the stove and sprinkle the cornstarch into the juice.
Stir well to combine and gently heat on low.
When the juice has warmed up and thickened slightly, add the lemon juice and the stevia.
Stir well and remove from stove. Let cool and use as is.
To store the syrup pour it into a clean container and refrigerate for up to three days.
Prickly Pear Smoothie
This smoothie makes a refreshing way to start the day.
To make this recipe you will need:
- Prickly pear fruit -3
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of orange juice
- 1/2 of a ripe banana
- two tablespoons lemon juice
Wash and peel the prickly pear fruit.
Put the fruit in a blender and blend. When you have a puree, pour the fruit through a sieve to remove the seeds.
Return the fruit to the blender and add the banana, the orange juice, and the lemon juice. Blend on high until smooth. Pour into a cup and enjoy.
Prickly Pear Puree
Scoop out the fruit from one or more prickly pears. Put it in a blender. Blend until you have a puree.
Strain the puree through a sieve to remove seeds. Pour the remaining prickly pear puree into a bowl.
Use the puree for making gelato, fruit leather, jam, candy, or anything else that requires a fruit puree.
If you want to save the puree for using later, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it.
After it is frozen remove it from the ice cube trays, place the cubes of frozen puree into a freezer bag, and leave it in the freezer until you are ready to use it.
Bottom Line on Prickly Pear
Prickly pear is best eaten as a food.
However, if you decide to take a supplement, be aware that you may experience some side effects including headaches, nausea, bloating or diarrhea.
In addition, since prickly pear lowers blood sugar, if you are on diabetes medication, you should see your doctor before supplementing with prickly pear.
Summer Banks, Director of Content at Dietspotlight, has researched over 5000 weight-loss programs, pills, shakes and diet plans. Previously, she managed 15 supplement brands, worked with doctors specializing in weight loss and completed coursework in nutrition at Stanford University. full bio.