Is edible cactus poised to go global?

1 Apr 2019

Cacti have been enjoyed for thousands of years in some parts of the world – notably in Mexico where their edible pads are known as nopales – but many others now have their eye on the plants for their flavour, nutrition and environmental adaptability.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) named the prickly pear cactus in late 2017 among potential answers to the global struggle with food security, and it has gradually been gaining attention among food and beverage manufacturers too.

Is edible cactus poised to go global?
The prickly pear cactus is fast-growing and nutritious

The cactus is prized for its large pads, which have a sour taste comparable to green beans, as well as its fruit, which are rich in vitamin C and flavonoids. Already farmed widely in Mexico, the FAO suggests in other parts of the world it could hold promise as a source of food and water for people and animals, especially in drought-stricken regions where it is relatively easy to cultivate.

A handful of companies is already making juices, waters, jams, gelato and confectionery from the prickly pear cactus, and suppliers such as Nopal Tunisie, Foodchem International and Nexira provide a range of cactus ingredients on a commercial basis.

Its popularity could get a boost among western consumers as they seek out new ingredients, particularly those they consider exotic, as well as with the rise of plant-based diets. In the United States, there has been renewed appreciation of Mexican foods and ingredients in recent years, as Americans increasingly seek to explore the nuance and variety of Mexican cuisine.

Meanwhile the FAO and the WWF make a strong case for diversifying diets around the world with less commonly consumed foods like cactus. According to a recent WWF report, about 60% of plant-based calories in the human diet come from just three crops: wheat, rice and corn. It suggests that diversifying our global food system may be essential for preserving wildlife considering a 60% decline in wildlife populations since 1970, largely due to agricultural expansion.

More recently, Unilever partnered with WWF to publish a list of 50 foods that could help promote a more sustainable global food system, including the prickly pear cactus. It claims the plant is easy to grow, nutritious and delicious – and is increasing in popularity in Europe and Australia.

The UN also hopes that the cactus will continue to attract interest, and reportedly already has received requests for technical support, particularly from African and Southeast Asian countries, especially as hot and dry climates increasingly become the norm in certain regions. Combined curiosity from farmers and consumers alike means more cactus-containing foods and drinks could appear on more supermarket shelves around the world in the months and years ahead.