As consumers continue to pursue healthier diets and lifestyles, many beverage makers are responding to the demand for healthy hydration by including nutrient-packed superfoods and functional ingredients in their products. While some of these ingredients represent passing fads, one superfruit that is now gaining broad popularity has been a staple of Mexican cuisine for thousands of years: the prickly pear.
Prickly pear is the common name for the large, sweet fruit of the Opuntia ficus-indica, also known as the nopal cactus. Native to the Americas (most likely originating in central Mexico), prickly pear spread to Europe and beyond after the arrival of Columbus, and today this drought-tolerant crop is cultivated around the world, particularly in the arid and semiarid regions of southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.
The fruit, which has a sweet, refreshing taste, can be yellow, orange, red or purple, depending on the variety. The red-purple variety that is common in the United States produces a gorgeous, naturally vibrant pink juice.
Prickly pear juice is ultra hydrating and rich in electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium, making it an ideal pre- and post-workout drink. Electrolytes hydrate at the cellular level and help boost cellular energy and athletic output.
Registered holistic nutritionist Peggy Kotsopoulos also recommends prickly pear juice for healthy, glowing skin. The fruit is high in antioxidant compounds such as betalains, vitamin C and polyphenols, which help neutralize free radicals, prevent UV damage and thus may slow the appearance of wrinkles and aging skin. “Plus, the prickly pear’s hydrating properties allow it to act as an inside-out moisturizer,” says Peggy, “promoting overall skin health and revitalization. The hydration coupled with the fruit’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties helps reduce skin puffiness and the appearance of under-eye circles – and it can even help prevent acne!”
Juice from the prickly pear fruit may offer more significant health benefits as well. For example, studies suggest that the antioxidants in prickly pear juice may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, while research has also shown that the flavonoids in prickly pear have a neuroprotective effect that could help prevent the neural cell damage leading to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies indicate that the betalain compounds in prickly pear juice may help protect against stress-induced gastric ulcers.
Prickly pear is an extremely versatile plant, as both the fruit and the immature pads (called nopales) are functional foods, and the various components and extracts are also used in cosmetics, traditional and alternative medicine (to lower blood sugar, for example), and dietary supplements. Research has found that prickly pear extract can even reduce the severity of some hangover symptoms!
In view of the growing consumer enthusiasm for superfoods and nutraceuticals, prickly pear juice is likely to remain popular as a functional – and tasty – ingredient. Prickly pear is currently found in a wide range of beverages, from juices and iced teas to energy drinks and other functional beverages.
And, though the health-promoting benefits are perhaps the main driver behind the growth in consumption, prickly pear is also increasingly appearing in alcoholic beverages. Prickly pear juice can be fermented and distilled into a unique spirit, which is often used in cocktails – as are the juice and syrup. Prickly pear margaritas are especially popular in the American Southwest. The prickly pear syrup they contain probably won’t prevent a hangover, but it does provide exquisite color and flavor!
Linda Barron is CEO of Steaz, the United States’ top-selling organic and fair trade green tea-based beverage company. Steaz product lines include prickly pear water, iced green teas and energy drinks.
The company embraces a triple bottom line philosophy that addresses the business’s impact on people, the planet and ethical profitability.