Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus, is a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae. Currently, only prickly pears are included in this genus of about 200 species distributed throughout most of the Americas. Chollas are now separated into the genus Cylindropuntia, which some still consider a subgenus of Opuntia. Austrocylindropuntia, Corynopuntia and Micropuntia are also often included in the present genus, but like Cylindropuntia they seem rather well distinct. Brasiliopuntia and Miqueliopuntia are closer relatives of Opuntia.
The most commonly culinary species is the Indian Fig Opuntia. Most culinary uses of the term "prickly pear" refer to this species. Prickly pears are also known as "tuna", "nopal" or nopales, from the Nahuatl word nopalli for the pads, or nostle, from the Nahuatl word nochtli for the fruit; or paddle cactus.The genus is named for the Ancient Greek city of Opus where, according to Theophrastus, an edible plant grew which could be propagated by rooting its leaves.
The fruit of prickly pears, commonly called cactus fruit, cactus fig, Indian fig or tuna in Spanish, is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption. If the outer layer is not properly removed, glochids can be ingested, causing discomfort of the throat, lips, and tongue, as the small spines are easily lodged in the skin. Native Americans, like the Tequesta, would roll the fruit around in a suitable medium to "sand" off the glochids. Alternatively, rotating the fruit in the flame of a campfire or torch has been used to remove the glochids. Today, parthenocarpic cultivars are also available.
The interest in the prickly plant is growing due to both the medical research and the wonderful taste of the fruit. Prickly pear has been used in Mexico to treat diabetes for over 1,000 years, and is one of the most used natural products in Central America.
The use of prickly pear as a natural helper in the treatment of diabetes is well known among native cultures. It is known to have hypoglycemic effects. The prickly pear has been reported as beneficial to a whole host of conditions. Research has shown it has beneficial actions on the cardiovascular system by decreasing platelet activity. This means it’s good for both the heart and blood vessels.
The cactus pads of the prickly pear contain essential vitamins and minerals such as: potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene and vitamin C.
Nopal Catcus is the only plant to contain 24 of the known betalains, which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. Betalains are polyphenolic pigments found in beets. Betalains give nopal cactus their purple-red and yellow colors. Prickly pear juice power comes from its ability to fight chronic inflammation.
The pads of prickly pear fruit contain a wide range of amino acids. This includes the 8 essential amino acids, which our bodies don’t produce. This is a plant that provides more essential amino acids than most other sources.
The mucilage found inside the sticky pads of the stem contain polysaccharides which are found in immune system stimulating plants.
The prickly pear was shown to lower blood sugar in people having type 2 diabetes. A single dose can decrease sugar levels by 17 to 46%. An overview of clinical studies done on prickly pear and diabetes was reported by the National Institute of Health. The analysis strongly suggested that the ingestion of the nopal had a true metabolic effect on persons with diabetes and reduces serum glucose levels.
The prickly pair has a mechanism of action, which promotes a faster and better glucose entry into the cell, in diabetics as well as non-diabetics.
Since diabetes is tied to obesity, a natural way to promote both weight loss and optimal glucose control has profound significance.
In an animal study, which was published in Pyhtotherapy Research, the researchers reported that a branded prickly pear supplement reduced the amount of weight gain in animals by nearly 20 percent, when compared to the control animals. In a French study, 49 women had a normal body mass index were randomly assigned to take either 2 grams of prickly pear extract or a placebo for 28 days. At the end of the 28 days of the double-bind study, women taking the prickly pair extract showed significant weight loss compared to the placebo group.
Obesity plays a central roll in the development of type 2 diabetes. The link between obesity and diabetes is strong. Prickly pear promotes weight loss along with glucose control. This is a powerful validation of prickly pears ability to improve insulin levels.
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