The prickly pears , despite the thorns, are an incredibly sweet and precious fruit for your health. Rich in fiber , vitamins , minerals and antioxidants , they are a concentrate of well-being, a kind of elixir of long life .
In the first place, it would come to be defined as the fruit of contradictions: In fact they are called prickly pears but they have nothing to do with India. Certainly, the fruit is thorny on the outside but tender and sweet on the inside, it bears fruit in the summer but the best fruits are tasted in the winter , it is exotic but “homegrown”. In short, prickly pears are still little known but they are the subject of many scientific studies that have revealed the mystery of many of their good nutraceutical properties.
Besides being very good for you, prickly pears can be consumed in different ways .
You can eat the prickly pear as a snack mid-morning or afternoon snack, or make a juice. But you can also experiment with new recipes based on prickly pears: from light desserts to salads, there are no limits!
Prickly pears: what they are
The plant and its fruit of this Cactacea can be indifferently called prickly pear or prickly pear , names that in the plural become prickly pears and prickly pears .
The plant ( Opuntia ficus-indica L.) is native to Central America, in particular in correspondence with present-day Mexico. It is fleshy and rich in water like all succulents that have adapted to very arid climates. Therefore it has favored the development in the trunk of structures suitable for storing water reserves to be used gradually in periods of drought. The stem is divided into large green ovoid cladodes, the so-called “blades”.
In fact, in favorable environments it can also present itself with an arborescent structure reaching even 5 meters in height. Finally, the roots are superficial, very branched and expanded.
Prickly pears: nutritional properties
The presence of a not excessive quantity of sugars in the fruit (in particular fructose) gives the prickly pear a fairly moderate caloric intake .
Certainly, the fibrous component of the pulp and the considerable amount of indigestible seeds increase the sense of satiety and reduce the absorption of sugars, making this fruit a valuable aid for those who want to follow a low-calorie diet.
Furthermore, the prickly pear has the characteristic of being a thirst-quenching fruit.
In fact, it has a good reserve of water, of which it is composed of over 80% of its weight, and has a good assortment of mineral salts , which replenish those dispersed through sweating in the months of late summer, especially potassium and magnesium.
Vitamins well represented are vitamin C and those of group B , in particular vitamins B5 and B6, in addition to folate.
Finally, prickly pears contain natural pigments that color the pulp: betalaines.
Betalains are divided into two categories:
- betacyanins, carriers of the red color
- betaxanthines which give, instead, a yellow-orange color
Certainly, betalaines have proved to be very effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances.
Prickly pears: health benefits
There are many beneficial effects of prickly pears on your body.
Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antitumor activity
Many studies have been conducted on the composition and effects of the components of prickly pears (Opuntia ficus-indica). They highlighted an important presence of antioxidants.
In particular, the analyzes concerned:
- ascorbic acid
- phenolic compounds
A study conducted by the Department of Sciences of the University of Messina has highlighted the figs of India as a source of betalain with antioxidant , cytoprotective and anti-angiogenic properties. With a variable effect depending on the color of the fruit.
A glycoside called isoramnetina has also been isolated in the prickly pear which is said to induce the death (apoptosis) of human colon cancer cells through mitochondrial damage.
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the fruit have been tested by the University of Beni Suef in Egypt as a prophylactic effect against irradiation-induced colitis (colitis) in rats. So much so as to conclude that the prickly pear can be considered a powerful agent in limiting the consequences of such injuries.
Particular anti-inflammatory properties have been assigned to the cladodes of the plant (the blades) useful in case of:
- whooping cough
- prevent infection of wounds
Another study conducted by the Department of Biological Sciences and Technologies of the University of Palermo involved a compound called indicaxanthin.
It is an antioxidant from the group of pigments such as belatain present in the prickly pear, whose effects range from anti-inflammatory to those of neuro-modulators and anti-cancer. It was found that indicaxanthin would be able to exert significant protective vascular effects in vitro, at relevant nutritional concentrations.
In particular, it seems to inhibit the dysfunction of human endothelial cells induced by the oxidation of low density lipoproteins (LDL) commonly known as ” bad cholesterol” .
Oxidized LDLs are responsible for inflammatory events leading to endothelial dysfunction and senescence, a disease known as atherosclerosis.
Furthermore, the indicaxanthin of this fruit would counteract the proliferation, invasiveness and tumor progression of melanoma cells .
According to recent studies carried out by the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta, the flavonoids contained in prickly pears are also useful for protecting the brain and strengthening memory .
Their effects on important degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are still being studied .
However, natural compounds in prickly pear have been identified as a useful source of bioactive molecules with promising neuroprotective capabilities.
Treatment of the metabolic syndrome
Particular attention has been given in recent decades to the use of prickly pear for the treatment of metabolic syndrome (MetS ), which is mainly a clinical situation related to the development of diabetes mellitus and the circulatory system.
It has been observed that the nutraceutical compounds present in the fruit would be able to interact in the treatment of diseases related to the metabolic syndrome, confirming, among other things, the indications on its potential effects on human health described since ancient times, mainly through medicine. traditional.
This marked anti-hyperglycemic activity and anti-diabetic properties, according to a recent study, would be more marked in the constituents of the cladodes (shovels) rather than in the fruits.
Even today, in the peasant culture of the island, the direct application of the “pulp” of the blades on wounds and sores constitutes an excellent anti-inflammatory, reconstructive and healing remedy of the epithelium.
The antimicrobial and wound-healing potential of prickly pear has also been studied on the oil obtained from the seeds of the fruit .
Prickly pear seed oil is used in the pharmacopoeia of traditional medicine for its richness in natural bioactive compounds. It has proven effective in improving and healing induced skin burns .
In addition, the oil has been shown to prevent skin infections by reducing the time of epithelial re-formation.
In particular, it showed interesting antimicrobial effects on Enterobacter cloacae , anti-yeast against Candida parapsilosis and antifungal against three opportunistic skin molds ( Penicillium, Aspergillus and Fusarium ).
Prickly pears and osteoporosis
The presence of minerals such as calcium and manganese makes this fruit an excellent adjuvant for the treatment of osteoporosis .
Laboratory experiments have highlighted the effect of consumption, at different stages of maturity, as the sole source of calcium on bone mineral metabolism in growing rats. Furthermore, it was observed that Ca uptake was increased with the age of the guinea pig.
Consumption of prickly pear increased osteocalcin levels during the adolescent phase.
Furthermore, on this basis, the prickly pear, in the advanced stage of maturity, contributed to bone formation.
Prickly pear, food to be included in the diet
The reduced caloric and carbohydrate intake , on the one hand, and the good presence of dietary fiber and water, on the other, make prickly pears particularly suitable for those who follow a low-calorie diet.
The consumption of prickly pears creates an effective sense of satiety.
Thanks to the fiber and the seeds, it is laxative and helps intestinal peristalsis , keeping cholesterol levels under control.
The water content promotes hydration and diuresis, preventing the risk of kidney stones forming and, in some cases, favoring the elimination of those already present. Finally, since it acts on water retention, it is an effective natural anti-cellulite.
Other therapeutic properties
If the qualities already indicated were not enough, think that prickly pears are also:
- diuretics indicated in case of renal colic or cystitis
- emollients and anti-inflammatories in case of burns and inflammations of various kinds
- astringent and indicated to counteract diarrhea
- gastroprotective and hypoglycemic; as the fibers contained in it protect the gastric mucosa and regulate blood sugar
Like so many fruits, it is recommended not to overdo the consumption . The intake of an excessive quantity of these fruits could cause gastrointestinal disorders, such as constipation and even intestinal blockage due to the numerous seeds. For this reason it is not recommended for people with diverticulosis.
There are also cases of hypersensitivity, especially in the form of dermatitis , which manifest themselves with swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, or skin itching or redness.
Cases of conjunctivitis caused by contact with thorns have been reported very rarely.
Better to ask your doctor for advice if you are on hypoglycemic drugs, because prickly pears could generate an enhancement of the pharmacological effect:
Same recommendation for those under treatment with diuretics such as furosemide and hydrochlorothiazide, because prickly pear could increase diuresis. Regarding these interactions, however, documented evidence is still ongoing.
Prickly pears: how to peel and store them
Normally, the prickly pears on the market have been brushed and have no thorns , but sometimes some small residual thorns can be encountered.
To deprive the fruit of the zest , without having to handle the fruit, it is useful to know this easy and practical technique .
With a fork, pierce the surface of the fruit and, placing it on a cutting board, remove the ends with a knife.
Then make a cut lengthwise on the peel, avoiding to go deep, without affecting the pulp. Then with the help of the fork and knife, separate the part of the fig pulp by making it “roll” on its own peel, unwinding it entirely from the point where you made the longitudinal cut.
Finally, at the end of the unrolling, the peel remains on the cutting board and the fruit can be placed on a clean plate, without coming into contact with any residual pins.
The prickly pears of India, suitably peeled, as well as for fresh consumption, can also be used for the preparation of sweets and ice cream . They can be processed into jams or even for the preparation of a liqueur.
How to store prickly pears ? You can keep them in the refrigerator for a long time, even for several weeks, as long as they are not kept closed in containers or plastic bags that facilitate the formation of rot.
Prickly pears: buying guide
Prickly pears on the market are generally subjected to a brushing treatment with specific machinery to remove almost all of the thorns.
This care is particularly important to prevent the consumer from getting injured by the annoying fruit thorns.
The fruit does not have a homogeneity of shape, color and size. This lack of uniformity is observed not only between different varieties, but also within the same cultivar.
So, at the time of purchase, you can find fruits with a different color rind , of a more or less elongated shape or of variable size.
When the fig is unripe , the peel has the same green color as the blades, while when fully ripe it turns red or yellow according to the specific color of the cultivar. The lighter colored variety keeps the green skin.
The moments of marketing follow those of the harvest, so there are two sales phases:
the first at the end of summer , when the Augustan quality is harvested , also called Primo Fiore since it is born after the first flowering of the plant. This first harvest presents fruits of smaller size, with more seeds and with a more concentrated and decisive taste
The second in October , when the late quality is harvested , that is the one following the process of scozzolatura, which has larger and more valuable fruits
With the flowers of prickly pears it is possible to make infusions with excellent diuretic properties and against heartburn.
Although its destination is aimed above all at the production of fruit and its derivatives, its “alternative” use as a supplementary food for the diets of ruminants in small farms should not be overlooked , as cattle and sheep are very fond of younger cladodes. , both for tenderness and because they have less hard thorns.
Prickly pears: beauty masks
Moisturizing mask with prickly pear pulp
This mask promotes skin hydration and elasticity. It is also rich in minerals, vitamins and amino acids.
- 1 tablespoon of whole yogurt (preferably organic)
- 1 teaspoon of cream (preferably organic)
- 2 green grapes
- 1 prickly pear
- tapioca starch to taste
Peel the prickly pear and blend it with the grapes. Mix the mixture with the yogurt and cream, then add the tapioca by hand until you get a thick consistency.
How it applies
Wash and dry your face skin. Apply the mask leaving it to act for about fifteen minutes, then rinse thoroughly with warm water.
Also find pur how to prepare face mask with Peach
Prickly pears: uses in cooking
To know the most common uses of the prickly pear in the kitchen, it is sufficient to refer to traditional Sicilian cuisine such as fruit salads, jams, liqueurs, granitas and mustards.
The fruit is generally eaten fresh, properly peeled. The pulp is juicy but contains many woody seeds which represent an obstacle to many elaborations.
It is possible to obtain an “extract” from the prickly pear , consisting of a syrupy liquid, from which the “mostaccioli” originate.
These are prepared by adding semolina flour and flavorings to the restricted juice by boiling. The “mustard” is also prepared in a similar way but with the addition of grape juice to which candied fruit is added.
In Sicily a syrup is traditionally produced through the concentration of the pulp deprived of the seeds, which has a consistency and taste similar to maple syrup, and which is used to prepare rustic sweets and as an infusion for a digestive liqueur.
Prickly pears: botany
Prickly pears bloom from May until mid-June . The flowers are hermaphroditic, that is, equipped with both male organs (stamens) and female organs (pistils) and have a showy cupped corolla which, depending on the variety, is red or yellow or orange or greenish in color.
Even if the flower remains open for about 2 weeks, the fertility period does not go beyond 2 days. Pollination is often self-pollinating , i.e. the pistil receives pollen from the same flower, but it can also be carried out by pollinating insects that favor its heterogamy.
The fruits that are born are berries ( prickly pears or prickly pears), navel at the end, externally covered with a thick and thorny skin. Furthermore, they have an internal part consisting of a sweet, juicy and more or less crunchy pulp in which numerous seeds are scattered (from 100 to over 400 per fruit).
The seeds of prickly pears are resistant to the action of gastric juices. Protected by a hard rind, they are not digested but expelled intact by the animals that feed on them, representing an effective means of spreading the seed and, therefore, of spreading the species. Multiplication by seed (“gamica”) does not normally produce perfectly alike plants.
However, prickly pears can also be multiplied by “agamic”, that is, directly from the cut and buried shovel. In this case, a twin plant is obtained to the one that provided the development material. This kind of multiplication is the most practiced in crops.
The harvest of the figs of India , according to the normal biological cycle of the plant, takes place in the months of August and September . However, the qualitative characteristics of summer fruits are not excellent, due to the presence of a high quantity of seeds and the lack of goodness.
Therefore, in cultivation, during the flowering period, the first flowers formed by the prickly pear are manually cut. This technique is called ” scozzolatura ” because it stimulates the development of a new, later flowering, which allows you to collect the fruits, called bastardoni, between October and December .
The bastardoni prickly pears are of decidedly superior quality because:
- they are bigger
- they have the most succulent pulp
- have fewer seeds in the pulp.
For this reason, the best prickly pears are those that are eaten in winter.
Prickly pears: food history
Prickly pears originate from Central America. The indigenous Central American populations consumed it extensively even before the arrival of the European colonizers.
The Aztecs called it ” nopalli ” and chose it as the emblem of their most important city, Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325.
Legend has it that the choice of the Aztec settlement was prophesied by the vision of an eagle perched on a cactus. The same image inspired the eagle on the prickly pear plant intent on devouring a snake (symbolizing evil), depicted in the center of the current Mexican tricolor flag.
During the travels of Christopher Columbus, who initially thought he had reached the Indies, the fruit was baptized with the name Prickly Pear.
Only later, it was realized that Columbus’s enterprise had opened quite other frontiers, those of a New World. However, the fruit has not changed its name and so the prickly pear came to Europe with the first naval expeditions of the Spaniards.
Despite being a plant that prefers desert areas, rocky soils and arid environments, its great adaptability has allowed it to spread easily and spontaneously, in large areas as well as in Central and South America, also in California, South Africa and of the Mediterranean.