Nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica)
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Nopales are a vegetable made from the young stem segments of prickly pear, carefully peeled to remove the spines. They are particularly common in their native Mexico. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica, although the pads of almost all Opuntia species are edible.
Nopales are generally sold fresh or canned, less often dried to prepare nopalitos. They have a light, slightly tart flavor, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture.
Nopales are commonly used in Mexican cuisine in dishes such as huevos con nopales (eggs with nopal), or “tacos de nopales”. Nopales are also an important ingredient in New Mexican cuisine, and are gaining popularity elsewhere in the United States.
Nopales are very rich in insoluble and especially soluble dietary fiber. They are also rich in vitamins (especially vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K, but also riboflavin and vitamin B6) and minerals (especially magnesium, potassium, and manganese, but also iron and copper). Nopales have a high calcium content, but the nutrient is not biologically available because it is present as calcium oxalate, which is neither highly soluble nor easily absorbed through the intestinal wall.
Addition of nopales also reduces the glycemic effect of a mixed meal.