The nopal cactus is an excellent food to include in our diet, thanks to its high nutritional content. However, one of the factors that discourage its consumption is that some people dislike the mucilage or "slime" it gives off when it is cut; so much so that there are different cooking techniques to eliminate this substance. Today we will explain why it is a good idea to eat it.
Jaime Lizardi Mendoza, an academic from the Coordination of Animal Food Technology at the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD), explained that cactus mucilage is mainly composed of soluble fiber (complex carbohydrates) that we do not digest since we do not have the digestive enzymes to take advantage of it nutritionally. However, fiber is relevant to the functioning and health of the digestive system. In addition, it also contains some protein and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
The main nutritional difference between mucilage and the rest of the cactus is in the amount of soluble fiber, which is considerably higher in the slime. This fiber has been associated with the beneficial effects observed with its consumption.
In several investigations, it has been found that the consumption of nopal and its slime can be associated with some beneficial effects, such as the control of the level of sugars in the blood (hypoglycemic effect and reduction of postprandial hyperglycemia), which is useful for those suffering from diabetes, or the reduction of cholesterol levels (particularly low-density cholesterol). It has also been reported that mucilage has some protective effect on the gastric mucosa, which may prevent ulcer formation.
Nutritionally, there is a difference if the nopal is consumed raw or boiled, since cooking causes changes that, in addition to flavor and texture, cause water loss and protein transformations. However, the main component of mucilage, soluble fiber, undergoes few modifications under common cooking conditions.
In addition to its nutritional properties, mucilage has other applications; for example, cactus slime is traditionally added to lime to make stucco, a material that was used to cover constructions since pre-Hispanic times. The mucilage has water retention capacity, interaction with fatty substances, and certain emulsifying power; these properties are being investigated for its incorporation in food technology, medical, cosmetic, or environmental remediation applications, among others.