Up until recently, eating a cactus has sounded more like painful idea than a good one. But as more people learn about its superfood qualities, cactus-infused foods and drinks are starting to pop up in grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers' markets across the country. Full of satiating fiber and pectin, a gelatin-like fiber that physically captures and disposes of the cholesterol in your blood, the cactus could be the newest weapon in the fight against high cholesterol. Its high fiber and pectin content also helps slow down the digestion of carbohydrates, which helps to ward off blood sugar spikes and diabetes. What’s more, with only 14 calories per cup, the plant is a great diet addition for anyone trying to slim down before summer. “When we’re trying to lose weight, we want to fill up on high fiber foods that are low in calories,” says nutritionist Amy Shapiro. That’s because they keep you full—without filling you out. And the wonderful benefits of cactus don’t stop there: It’s also full of calcium, magnesium, and sodium, all electrolytes that are important for muscle contraction, hydration and cell function, Shapiro adds.
Wondering how you're supposed to eat the prickly plant? We suggest starting with the prickly pear cactus. It’s the most commonly eaten variety and has three edible parts: the pads (which can be treated like a vegetable), the petals (which can easily be added to salads), and the pear itself (which can be eaten like a fruit). The pads can be cut up and boiled or grilled and then added to salads or served as a side dish. They can also be eaten raw—although, the bitter taste may not be for everyone. The sweet pears can be enjoyed like any other fruit—eaten on their own or added to a fruit salad. And like most superfoods, many people enjoy adding cactus to their smoothies. Try adding it to any of these weight-loss smoothies for an extra nutrient-filled kick. Not much of a cook? No problem! Keep your eyes peeled for CaliWater, ($29.99 for twelve 11.2-oz. cartons) or True Nopal Cactus Water ($49.12 for twelve 33.8-oz. cartons), sippable treats made with the desert plant.