Nopal is the genus Opuntia from the Cactaceae family, or what is commonly known as the prickly pear cactus.
Some of the constituents in nopal cactus include water, fat, mucopolysaccharide soluble fibers, carbohydrates, proteins, saponins, glycosides, a flavonoid (quercetin, a popular anti-oxidant), and minerals, plus large amounts of certain B vitamins, specifically B1, B2 (riboflavin),B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6.
Nopal means cactus in Spanish and nopales means “cactus stem”. The term nopalitos refers to the cactus pads, once they are cut up and prepared for eating.
Nopal is a large cactus with a woody trunk and large top, yellow barbed spines, bright yellow flowers, and a red fruit with white flesh that is juicy and sweet, containing numerous black seeds.
Nopal is native to Mexico, where it is considered the symbol of identity of the Mexican people and even included on the Mexican flag. Twenty thousand years ago Nopal was considered the lifeblood of ancient indigenous cultures, particularly in times of drought. In Pre-Columbian times, Nopal was considered an important staple food for both humans and livestock, as well as a beverage and a therapeutic agent. Indigenous peoples frequently included Nopal in religious and magical rites. During the Spanish Colonial Period, Nopal gained further importance as forage for cattle following depletion of grasslands. Its beneficial uses as a tonic and healthful beverage were also gaining in reputation during this period. The De la Cruz-Badiano Codex of 1552, for example, noted that Nopal was widely used by indigenous peoples to nutritionally support healthy skin, a healthy digestive system and a healthy immune system as well. Friar Motolinia remarked, “The Indians, from a land so sterile that they lack water, drink the juice of these leaves of nopal.” Nopal received its botanical name, Opuntia, from Tournefot, who thought the plant was similar to a thorny plant that grew in the town of Opus, in Greece. After the Spanish conquest, Nopal spread from Mexico to practically all the Americas, and may now be found in tropical and arid regions throughout the world, including the southwestern United States.
Over the last several years, many scientific studies have been published about the therapeutic properties of the prickly pear cactus.