The prickly pear cactus has been used for centuries to make a sweet, refreshing drink called prickly pear juice or tuna juice. This bright pink beverage is made by extracting the juice from the pulp of the prickly pear fruit.
What is prickly pear?
Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia species) are found in arid and semi-arid regions throughout the Americas. They produce prickly pear fruit, which are oval shaped and about 5-6 cm long. The outside of the fruit is covered in tiny spines, which need to be removed before eating. Underneath the tough, spiny skin is the pulp, which ranges in color from deep red to purple or orange. The pulp is full of hard seeds and has a sweet, melon-like flavor.
There are around 200 species of prickly pear cacti. The most common species used to make drinks are Opuntia ficus-indica and Opuntia engelmannii. The Nopal cactus, Opuntia streptacantha, is also used, especially in Mexico. In Mexico, prickly pear cactus is known as “tuna” and the fruit is “tuna mansa.”
History of prickly pear drinks in Mexico
Using prickly pear cacti for food and drink has a long history in Mexico. For thousands of years, indigenous groups like the Aztecs harvested wild prickly pear fruit to consume. The flattened, spade-shaped pads of the cactus, called nopales, were also eaten as a vegetable after removing the spines. Making drinks from the red prickly pear fruit likely developed after the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s and introduced sugarcane.
Adding sugar to the pulpy juice let it ferment into a slightly alcoholic drink. This fermented prickly pear drink was called “colonche.” It became popular in central Mexico as a refreshment and digestive aid due to its sweet flavor and little alcohol content. Colonche is still made and enjoyed today in rural areas of Mexico.
How traditional prickly pear juice is made
To make basic prickly pear juice, the ripe red fruits are picked by hand, taking care to avoid the small spines on the skin. There are a few ways the spines can be removed:
- Singeing – Holding the fruit over a flame to burn off spines
- Brushing – Brushing the fruits with a stiff brush
- Scrapping – Scraping off the spines with a knife
- Peeling – Cutting off the peel and slicing off the skin
Next, the peeled fruit is crushed or mashed to separate the juice from the seeds and pulp. The juice is filtered by squeezing it through a cloth to remove any remaining bits. Some recipes boil the prickly pear mash briefly before straining to extract more juice.
The bright pink prickly pear juice can be enjoyed right away, chilled or over ice. For a sweeter drink, sugar is added to taste. The juice can also be mixed with other fruit juices like orange, lime, mango or guava. Traditional prickly pear drinks are less refined than commercial versions, with more pulp and sediment.
Modern prickly pear juice production
Today, prickly pear juice is produced commercially in factories for large scale distribution. The production process is more complex than traditional methods. The steps include:
- Harvest – Prickly pear fruits are picked by hand or collected from wild cacti in large quantities.
- Cleaning – The fruits are washed thoroughly and scrubbed to remove spines.
- Peeling – The spiny peel is removed using an abrasive roller machine.
- Pulp separation – The peeled fruit is pressed to extract the inner pulp from the seeds.
- Straining – The pulp goes through a fine mesh screen to remove any remaining seeds or skin.
- Pasteurization – The juice is rapidly heated then cooled to kill bacteria and extend shelf life.
- Blending – Other fruit juices or pulps may be added to the prickly pear juice for flavor.
- Bottling – The final product is bottled hot to maintain sterility.
These methods allow prickly pear juice to be produced in large batches under sanitary conditions. The juice can be kept stable at room temperature for 6-12 months due to the heat pasteurization process. Commercial prickly pear juice has a more uniform taste than traditional drinks.
Nutrition facts of prickly pear juice
Prickly pear juice is low in calories and fat but high in beneficial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. One cup (250ml) of prickly pear juice contains approximately:
Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2000 calorie diet. As you can see, prickly pear juice provides significant levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium and magnesium.
Prickly pear fruit contains high levels of antioxidants, including flavonoids, phenolic acids, betacyanins, and betaxanthins. These compounds give prickly pear juice its vivid red-purple color. Consuming antioxidants can help reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of chronic diseases.
Some research indicates the antioxidants in prickly pear juice have anti-inflammatory properties. Drinking prickly pear juice may decrease inflammatory markers like interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP). Chronic inflammation is linked to many health problems.
Potential health benefits of prickly pear juice
Here are some of the evidence-based health benefits that drinking prickly pear juice may provide:
1. May lower blood sugar levels
Prickly pear juice is high in pectin, a soluble fiber that can slow digestion and glucose absorption. This may promote lower blood sugar spikes after eating. One study in type 2 diabetics found prickly pear juice decreased fasting blood glucose levels compared to placebo.
2. May reduce hangover symptoms
Prickly pear juice contains compounds that combat inflammation in the liver caused by alcohol. A few studies found prickly pear extract reduced hangover nausea, dry mouth, and appetite loss in people who drank alcohol.
3. May decrease cholesterol and triglycerides
The fiber and antioxidants in prickly pear juice may help lower unhealthy LDL and total cholesterol levels. Some research also indicates prickly pear can lower blood triglyceride levels, which are linked to heart disease risk.
4. May promote intestinal health
The mucilaginous fiber in Opuntia fruit forms a thick gel that can help improve water absorption in the intestines. Prickly pear juice may decrease constipation, diarrhea, and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
5. May reduce hangover symptoms
Some research indicates prickly pear extract reduces fatigue and exhaustion in athletes following intense exercise. The antioxidants in prickly pear juice may help accelerate recovery after a hard workout.
6. May ease arthritis symptoms
Prickly pear contains compounds that can decrease inflammation and oxidative damage in joints and tissues. Drinking prickly pear juice may potentially help reduce pain, stiffness and swelling related to rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.
How to make prickly pear juice at home
It’s easy to make refreshing prickly pear juice at home. Here is a simple recipe to try:
- 5-7 large prickly pear fruits
- 2 cups water
- 1⁄4 cup sugar or agave nectar, or to taste (optional)
- 1 tbsp fresh lime juice (optional)
- Using tongs and gloves, hold the prickly pear fruit over a gas flame for 15-30 seconds to singe off the small spines.
- Cut off both ends of the fruit then make a slit down the side of the peel. Use a knife to lift off and discard the peel.
- Chop the peeled fruit into chunks and add to a blender.
- Add the water and blend on high until smooth. For a thinner juice, strain through a fine mesh sieve.
- Mix in desired sweetener like sugar, honey or agave nectar.
- Add fresh lime juice for some tartness and zest (optional).
- Serve chilled, over ice or mixed into cocktails. Enjoy!
Experiment with adding different fruit juices, herbs or spice mixes into your homemade prickly pear juice to create unique flavors.
Where to buy prickly pear juice
Unfortunately, prickly pear juice can be hard to find in mainstream grocery stores. Here are some places to look for it:
- Latin/Mexican markets – Prickly pear juice is carried in many Latino food stores, often imported from Mexico.
- Specialty food stores – Some health food stores or gourmet retailers will carry prickly pear juice.
- Online – Prickly pear juice can be purchased through online retailers like Amazon.
- Farmers markets – In arid regions like Arizona and California, vendors at farmers markets may sell fresh prickly pear juice.
- Juice bars – Some smoothie and juice bars will make prickly pear juice using fresh fruit.
- Mexico – When traveling in Mexico, look for street vendors selling fresh tuna (prickly pear) juice.
Major juice brands like POM Wonderful and Naked Juice also produce prickly pear juice blends. You may be able to find these in the refrigerated juice section of large supermarkets.
Precautions when consuming prickly pear
While prickly pear fruit and juice are safe for most people, there are some precautions to keep in mind:
- May cause mild diarrhea – Due to its diuretic effect, drinking large amounts of prickly pear juice can potentially lead to loose stools or diarrhea.
- Risk of hypoglycemia – Prickly pear can enhance insulin sensitivity, so diabetics should monitor blood sugar closely when consuming it.
- Natural laxative – Eating many prickly pear fruits may have a laxative effect.
- Citrus allergy – People with allergies to citrus fruits may also react to prickly pears.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding – Speak with your doctor before consuming prickly pear products.
- Surgery – Stop eating prickly pear at least 2 weeks before any scheduled surgery.
Start by drinking small amounts of prickly pear juice diluted in water or blended with other fruit juices to see how your body responds. Avoid drinking more than one cup (250ml) at a time.
Prickly pear cacti produce vibrantly colored fruits that can be made into a sweet, tart juice full of beneficial nutrients. This traditional Mexican drink called tuna juice has been consumed for centuries. While prickly pear juice is not as common as other fruit juices, its popularity and availability is growing.
Modern production methods allow prickly pear juice to be bottled and sold commercially. However, you can also easily make refreshing prickly pear drinks at home. Just be cautious of the spines when handling the fruits! Drinking prickly pear juice in moderation may provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.