Barbary fig, also called prickly pear, has attracted attention in the nutrition world for its potential health benefits.
Research has found that Barbary fig is a concentrated source of nutrients and may benefit people with a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease (
It can grow in areas affected by drought, and it even has the ability to repair damaged soil. These special properties make it an important, eco-friendly crop for human and animal consumption in many areas of the world (
This article reviews Barbary fig, including its uses and potential health benefits, and explains how you can add this interesting fruit to your diet.
Barbary fig (Opuntia spp.) refers to several species of cactus commonly known as prickly pear or nopal. Native to Mexico, this plant also grows in many areas of the world, including North Africa and the United States (
The plant produces edible fruit once a year during a short season. People call the fruit by several names, including prickly pear, Barbary fig, cactus pear, and tuna.
A number of species of prickly pear grow around the world (
Many parts of the Barbary fig plant are edible, including the stems, which are known as cladodes, pads, nopales, or pencas. In Mexico, the tender parts of the stem, which are known as cladodes, are treated as a vegetable and added to dishes like salads.
People enjoy the cactus fruit as a fresh fruit or juice and also use it to make products like jams, candies, dried fruit, dietary supplements, and wine. When ripe, the fruit has a sweet, melon or berry-like flavor.
The oval-shaped fruits are some variation of green, orange, or purple.
People usually prefer to eat fruits that have a green rind and white pulp.
Although the fruit is edible, you must peel it before eating it. The sweet flesh of the fruit is encased in a tough skin that’s covered in tiny spines known as glochids. The fruit also has a considerable number of seeds, which you can eat (
People have used Barbary fig throughout history in traditional medicine systems as a natural treatment for various medical conditions, such as wounds, liver disease, glaucoma, and digestive issues (
Plus, the plant grows in harsh, arid climates with poor soil, making it an important crop for areas affected by severe droughts, such as Morocco (
In addition to its use as food for both humans and animals, people sometimes use Barbary fig to create natural dye and vegan leather products (
Barbary fig, also known as prickly pear, is a species of cactus. The fruit is edible and people use it as a food source for humans and animals.
Barbary fig is highly nutritious and contains a variety of powerful plant compounds.
Here’s the nutrition information for 1 cup (149 grams) of raw Barbary fig fruit, also called prickly pear (
- Calories: 61
- Carbs: 14.3 grams
- Fiber: 5.4 grams
- Protein: 1.1 gram
- Fat: less than 1 gram
- Vitamin C: 23% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Calcium: 6% of the DV
- Magnesium: 30% of the DV
- Potassium: 7% of the DV
As you can see, Barbary fig is a good source of fiber and several vitamins and minerals that can promote good health.
For example, potassium helps regulate blood pressure, while calcium promotes strong bones. Meanwhile, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant involved in immunity, and magnesium plays roles in bone health, heart and muscle contraction, and energy metabolism.
Barbary fig also contains smaller amounts of folate, riboflavin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, and copper.
Additionally, it’s known for its strong antioxidant qualities and high content of beneficial plant compounds. These include polyphenols, including flavonoids, and water-soluble pigments called betalains (
Betalain pigments give the Barbary fig fruit its color. Purple varieties of Barbary fig contain betalains called betacyanins, while orange varieties contain betaxanthins.
Betalains found in Barbary fig have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, the purple varieties tend to have higher levels of betalains and vitamin C, and they may have more powerful antioxidant activity than orange varieties (
Barbary fig’s impressive nutrient profile and high content of beneficial plant compounds are thought to be the reasons behind its potential health benefits.
Barbary fig fruit is a good source of fiber and several other nutrients, including magnesium and vitamin C. Barbary fig is also a concentrated source of plant compounds that may provide health benefits.
Research has shown that Barbary fig may provide a number of health benefits thanks to its array of nutrients and potent plant compounds.
For example, studies have shown that Barbary fig may help reduce inflammation and blood fat levels (
May help decrease inflammation
Barbary fig contains compounds, including betalains, which research has found may have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Some studies have linked Barbary fig consumption to improvements in certain inflammatory markers.
For example, in one high quality study, 28 participants consumed 200 grams of Barbary fig fruit pulp twice per day for 2 weeks. After this period, they consumed an equal amount of other fruit every day for another 2 weeks.
The two periods were separated by a 3-week break period.
Consuming Barbary fig led to greater decreases in inflammatory markers compared with consuming other seasonal fruits.
These markers of inflammation included tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), C-reactive protein (CRP), interferon gamma (INFγ), interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β), interleukin 8 (IL-8), and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) (
Additionally, consuming Barbary fig increased participants’ skin carotenoid content, a marker of whole body antioxidant status (
Animal studies have also shown that Barbary fig may have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties (
While these results are promising, scientists need to do larger, high quality studies to further investigate the anti-inflammatory properties of Barbary fig.
May benefit metabolic health
Some evidence suggests that Barbary fig may have the ability to lower blood fat and blood sugar levels.
A high quality study in 22 male athletes gave participants 5 ounces (150 mL) of Barbary fig juice per day, before and after intense exercise.
The treatment group experienced significant decreases in total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, heart rate, and the oxidative stress marker malondialdehyde (MDA), compared with the control group (
Interestingly, the people who consumed the Barbary fig juice also had less exercise-induced muscle damage (
What’s more, a 2020 review of 11 studies found that Barbary fig consumption was associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol, as well as reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol (
In addition to its cholesterol-lowering potential, Barbary fig may lower blood sugar, according to some studies (
However, a 2019 review found that the effects on blood sugar may depend on what part of the Barbary fig you eat.
The part of the Barbary fig plant known as the cladode shows promise for lowering blood sugar. However, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that the fruit has blood-sugar-lowering effects (
The cladode is a stem that looks like a leaf. Barbary fig cladodes are paddle shaped. One review found that consuming Barbary fig cladodes was associated with significant reductions in blood sugar levels among people with and without diabetes (
The cladode is very high in fiber, which may explain its blood-sugar-lowering effects.
Lastly, a 2015 review of five studies found that consuming Barbary fig may help reduce body fat, as well as blood pressure and total cholesterol. Still, the researchers noted that most of the available studies investigating Barbary fig’s effects on body weight were of poor quality (
Other potential benefits
Along with the benefits above, some research suggests that Barbary fig may offer liver- and brain-protecting benefits, have cancer-fighting qualities, and help with hangovers.
Indicaxanthin is a type of betalain in Barbary fig. Preliminary research suggests that indicaxanthin can cross the blood-brain barrier. This means it can enter the brain, unlike many substances in the blood.
It appears to accumulate in the brain and help protect against damage (
Animal studies have also shown that the compounds in Barbary fig may help protect against liver damage and have cancer-fighting qualities (
What’s more, seed oil extracted from Barbary fig has been shown to have antibacterial, antifungal, and wound-healing properties. This is why companies use Barbary fig seed oil in skin and hair care products (
One older study suggests Barbary fig may also help with hangovers. Participants drank the extract of the species Opuntia ficus indica before drinking alcohol.
People who took the extract experienced improved hangover symptoms the next morning, including significantly reduced dry mouth, nausea, and lack of appetite. However, the extract didn’t lower other symptoms like dizziness, weakness, and headache (
Even though these results are encouraging, scientists need to do more research in humans to investigate these possible health benefits of Barbary fig.
Barbary fig has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may benefit metabolic health. Some studies suggest it may also help fight cancer and protect the liver and brain. However, scientists need to do more research on these potential benefits.
You can enjoy Barbary fig fresh as a whole fruit or incorporated into different products, including juices, candy, jams, and wines. People usually prefer to eat fruits with a green rind and white pulp.
Grocery stores in areas where Barbary fig is uncommon typically don’t carry it, so you may have to visit a specialty grocer or order the fruit online.
It’s important to note that you need to remove the tough outer skin before eating the Barbary fig fruit. Take care when peeling the fruit, as it’s covered in tiny spines. Wear gloves or use a towel to protect your hands while removing the skin.
You can eat the fruit fresh on its own or incorporate it into recipes like fruit salads. The fruit contains small seeds that you can eat or spit out.
Health food and specialty stores sometimes sell Barbary fig products like drinks and supplements.
If you’re interested in taking concentrated Barbary fig products like extracts or supplements, it’s important to consult a knowledgeable healthcare provider first to ensure safety.
Furthermore, given that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates supplements differently than it regulates prescription medications, it may be best to only purchase Barbary fig products that have undergone third-party testing.
Barbary fig products may interact with certain medications, such as those used to treat diabetes, when taken in concentrated doses (
Additionally, eating large amounts of Barbary fig fruit may cause stomach upset in some people (
You can enjoy Barbary fig fresh on its own, as a juice, or incorporated into other recipes, such as those for jams and fruit salad. If you’re interested in taking concentrated products like supplements, check with your healthcare provider first.
Barbary fig, also called prickly pear and nopal, is a sweet fruit that comes from a cactus plant. It’s a good source of nutrients, including fiber and vitamin C, and packed with powerful plant compounds.
Studies have shown it has anti-inflammatory qualities and may benefit metabolic health. However, more research investigating its potential beneficial effects is needed before scientists can make strong conclusions.
If you’re looking for a unique fruit to add to your diet, Barbary fig makes an excellent healthy choice.