Prickly Pear Cactus

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In the name of good health and a good read, each week we'll be bringing you a health product, complete with review. We're calling this feature Crunchy Granola -- even though we doubt much of this stuff tastes that good.

This week: Prickly Pear Cactus, aka, Nopal

Most people think the pride and joy of the prickly pear is found in its bright red fruit, and with the most popular ways to consume the fruit is through jelly, candy, or vodka (yes, please!), who would blame them?

And although the fleshy green part of the plant might seem like the neglected stepchild, people have been eating it for hundreds of years and for good reason: the health benefits are astounding, and have significant medical research to back them up. So, once you drink yourself into a pink-hued vodka stupor, you might need a little bit the good stuff to bring you back to health.

Read more about why the cactus is so good for you, how to eat it, and the best way to work around those prickly spines, after the jump.

The hippie history:
Nopal was considered a plant with extensive medicinal value by Native Indians in America, and has been consumed since Pre-Colombian times. They are still extremely popular in Mexican cuisine and it is normal to see a nopal vendor in the mercados, scraping the spines (or agüates) off fresh cactus for his or her customers.

Many people integrate nopalitos -- the cactus, post-spine removal, raw or boiled and then cut into strips -- in simple dishes such as scrambled eggs, tacos, or mixed with grilled meat. In almost any Mexican market it is possible to pick up a container of ready-made ensalada de nopalitos (nopalito salad), a pico de gallo-type mixture.

Why am I eating this, again?
There have been many studies about the health benefits of integrating nopal into everyday diets. The cactus pads themselves are a significant source of vitamins, minerals, and even contain a thick liquid used for creating soluble dietary fiber supplement. Yum! But that's not the end of it:

Because the plant is low in carbohydrates, it has been found that glucose levels in type 2 diabetes patients were reduced after a meal that contained nopales. And, according to Livestrong.com, a study done in California showed that consumption of the plant lead to a 28 percent drop in cholesterol levels.

The crunchy conclusion:
I would have really liked to head over to Two Hippie's Beach House to try their outrageously cheap cactus tacos, but I opted for an equally traditional yet homemade breakfast option of scrambled eggs with nopalitos and ensalada de nopalitos on the side.

Depending on what store you go to, you can buy raw cactus pads like you just plucked them from the plant (minus the spines) or nopalitos jarred and ready to eat. I chose to go to one of my favorite places in Phoenix, Ranch Market, and they did not disappoint in the nopal department, providing both options. Behind the cheap and time-pressed college student that I am, I chose to go with Hormel's Doña María brand.

When I opened the jar, it smelled distinctly of pickled jalapenos, which made my mouth water with excitement (a quick glance to the nutrition label tells me these puppies are certainly pickled, with 560mg of sodium in two tablespoons -- not so crunchy granola). I tried a couple right out of the jar, and while they provided a salty bite, they tasted more like canned green beans than jalapenos.

I didn't mind the flavor of the nopalitos solo, probably thanks to the fact that green beans were a fixture on the dining room table growing up. The eggs were more one note with the simple mix-in, and would have been pretty boring without the nopalitos mixed with the pico de gallo for the ensalada. It certainly didn't seem like I was eating anything weird or unusual, and I'm definitely keeping the jar around next time I am craving a little (or a lot of) saltiness.

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