Ingredient Spotlight: Prickly Pear

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 17 No. 8
Volume 17
Issue 8

Cactus fruits offer ample nutrition in an exotic package.

Now more than ever, Americans recognize the power of natural foods and supplements. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over half of Americans now take some type of dietary supplement. This is a clear message to manufacturers that consumers are looking to answer their many needs in the most convenient ways possible. Fortunately, there are foods in nature that can give products a significant boost in nutrition, recognizability, and a taste of the exotic. One of them is the prickly pear.

Prickly pear, also known as Opuntia ficus-indica and sometimes called cactus fruit, is a common food in Mexico. The fruit has a sweet taste with a bit of tartness behind it. Long a staple in Central American diets, this desert fruit is a great choice when it comes to nutritional value.

For digestive health, prickly pear is a good source of fiber. A one-cup serving of prickly pear offers about 5.4 g of fiber.1 Prickly pear also carries a number of other nutrients, making it an ideal addition to multivitamin formulas. A serving of prickly pear contains roughly 21 mg of the antioxidant vitamin C, an invaluable asset in the fight against free radicals in the body. The fruit also contains a bevy of minerals. A serving of prickly pear may contain up to 13% of the daily recommended amount of copper and a large amount of magnesium. Both are critical minerals for a healthy body.

But this cactus fruit isn’t just a great source of essential vitamins and minerals. Prickly pear’s reputation is built not just on its contents but on how those contents may help alleviate some very common health problems.


Prickly pear isn’t just a nutritional juggernaut; the fruit is linked to numerous other benefits for overall health. For instance, it should be noted that prickly pear might be useful for managing cholesterol levels. In one study, researchers studied the effects of prickly pear on rats. Groups of rats were given prickly pear at either a 6% or 12% concentration, and the prickly pear was either raw or cooked. Researchers found that the rats that consumed raw prickly pear at 12% concentration experienced a reduction in LDL cholesterol levels of up to 34%, showing that the fruit may be beneficial to those suffering from hypercholesterolemia. In addition to those findings, researchers also noticed that rats that consumed the prickly pear at 12% concentration had lower weight gains than the other groups.2

Although studies on humans are needed, the rat study presents an optimistic find. With prickly pear, formulators may now have a natural answer to managing bad cholesterol levels. According to a report from the research firm IMS Health, Crestor, a cholesterol-lowering drug, was the most-prescribed pharmaceutical drug in 2013,3 accounting for more than 23.7 million prescriptions and $5.3 billion in sales. Crestor’s market is an enticing one for natural alternatives.


Inflammation can strike anyone at any moment and in various ways. Aching back, sore knees, or tender joints afflict many. In the United States alone, over 52 million people suffer from arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4 That number is expected to grow as the population ages. For those looking for a natural way to help assuage the pain caused by arthritis, prickly pear may contain the answer.

Within prickly pear lies a phytochemical named indicaxanthin, and it may be useful in combating those achy joints. In another animal study, researchers tested indicaxanthin in rats to measure the compound’s effects on inflammation. Rats were given pleurisy, induced by carrageenan, and were later euthanized so researchers could study the effects of the indicaxanthin against the carrageenan-induced release of inflammatory chemicals. Researchers noted that the phytochemical inhibited the release of many inflammatory agents,5 although they also said that human research is needed.

According to another study, indicaxanthin may also help those suffering from chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Researchers at the University of Palermo in Italy were able to display the phytochemical’s anti-inflammatory properties when it was introduced into an IBD model, consisting of human intestinal epithelial cell line that were stimulated by a known IBD-causing cytokine, IL-1β. Indicaxanthin managed to stop the release of inflammatory cytokines and stop the increase of epithelial permeability.6

A Versatile Ingredient

Manufacturers will find that adding the versatile prickly pear into their formulations will have added benefits beyond the nutrients, although the fruit’s nutritional payload is not to be taken lightly. With prickly pear’s combination of antioxidants, dietary fiber, cholesterol-managing ability, and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, it isn’t surprising that R&D departments are closely watching this fruit.

Customers are looking for an easy way to obtain all of their daily nutritional needs, and they also want natural ingredients that offer more benefits. The prickly pear appears to accomplish both.

1. L Tremblay, “Prickly Pear Nutritional Values,”, accessed August 1, 2014,
2. ML Cárdenas Medellín et al., “Effect of raw and cooked nopal (Opuntia ficus indica) ingestion on growth and profile of total cholesterol, lipoproteins, and blood glucose in rats,” Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición, vol. 48, no. 8 (December 1998): 316–323
3. R Lowes, “Top 100 Selling Drugs through September Reported,” Medscape Medical News,
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Arthritis: Frequently Asked Questions-General Public,” accessed July 30, 2014
5. M Allegra et al., “Indicaxanthin from cactus pear fruit exerts anti-inflammatory effects in carrageenan-induced rat pleurisy,” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 144, no. 2 (February 2014): 185–192
6. L Tesoriere et al., “Indicaxanthin inhibits NADPH oxidase (NOX)-1 activation and NF-κB-dependent release of inflammatory mediators and prevents the increase of epithelial permeability in IL-1β-exposed Caco-2 cells,” British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 111, no. 3 (February 2014): 415–423


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