Opuntia ficus-indica, aka, “prickly pear,” is the most widespread and most commercially important species of cactus and is grown in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. Common names for the plant and its fruit are nopal, Indian fig opuntia, Barbary fig, cactus pear, prickly pear and spineless cactus, among others.1,2
In many countries, Opuntia ficus-indica has been used in traditional folk medicine in the treatment of a number of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemic, rheumatic pain, gastric mucosa diseases and asthma. Research has demonstrated that Opuntia ficus-indica exhibits diverse pharmacological actions.3 The focus of this article will be on the beneficial effects of Opuntia ficus-indica fiber from a weight loss and cardiometabolic perspective (including metabolic syndrome).
Opuntia ficus-indica Fiber
Opuntia ficus-indica fiber (Neopuntia, patented ingredient by Nexira) has a unique composition of fibers, with half being soluble fibers (hydrophilic) and half insoluble (lipophilic). This unique composition allows Opuntia ficus-indica fiber to effectively bind with fats (Neopuntia is a pure complex of cactus fibers with guaranteed lipophilic activity). In fact, in a laboratory study investigating opuntia’s mechanism of action in a gastrointestinal (GI) model, 2 g of Neopuntia prevented the absorption of 2.7 g of fatty acids during a four-hour GI exposure.4 This study suggested the potential value of this fiber in reducing fat absorption and promoting weight loss.
In a double-blind placebo-controlled pilot study5 of 10 healthy volunteers (five women and five men with a body mass index (BMI) of 23.3 Kg/m2±3.1), subjects were randomly divided into two groups. The study volunteers consumed 1.6 g of Opuntia ficus-indica fiber with each meal or placebo in the form of a capsule for one week while following a strict diet of standardized meals in order to carefully control the consumption of lipids. Following the first week of testing, there was a seven-day washout period without any product before introduction of the next seven-day testing period during which the opuntia group received the placebo and vice-versa. A strict diet with standardized meals was followed by the volunteers to ensure a standardized intake of lipids. The effect on intestinal absorption fat was evaluated in feces at the end of the product consumption periods. The results were that, on average, the opuntia group excreted 27.4 percent more fat compared with the placebo. No side effects or discomfort were observed.
Two other clinical studies were conducted in which Opuntia ficus-indica fiber was given as a primary ingredient. In one study,6 30 overweight subjects (70 percent F, 30 percent M) received 1.2 g of opuntia for 30 days. Opuntia resulted in about 11.5 lb of weight loss, a statistically significant (p<0.05) result. In another study, 32 participants with an excess of 20 pounds of weight were broken into three study groups, and for 10 weeks opuntia was administered to these patients. The final results showed an average weight loss of 14.5 lb.7
A larger clinical study on metabolic syndrome patients was also conducted, but before reviewing that study, let’s first review metabolic syndrome.
According to the Mayo Clinic, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Five criteria for metabolic syndrome include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Having just one of these conditions doesn’t mean you have metabolic syndrome. But it does mean you have a greater risk of serious disease. And if you develop more of these conditions, your risk of complications, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, rises even higher. Metabolic syndrome is increasingly common, and up to one-third of U.S. adults have it.
Metabolic Syndrome and Opuntia ficus-indica Fiber
Metabolic syndrome (syndrome X) causes millions of cardiovascular complications and premature deaths every year. The aim of this study8 was to evaluate the effects of Opuntia ficus-indica fiber on blood lipid parameters and metabolic syndrome. Participants in this monocentric, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, six-week study, were 68 women, ages 20 to 55 years, with metabolic syndrome and a BMI between 25 and 40. Fifty-nine subjects completed the study, according to the study plan. All volunteers followed well-balanced diets with controlled lipid input. Opuntia or placebo capsules were taken at a dosage of 1.6 g per meal. All five metabolic syndrome criteria were measured on days 0, 14, and 42, including low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), and triglyceride levels.
Results for the 42 females above 45 years of age was a significant increase in HDL-C levels with opuntia and a tendency toward decreased triglyceride levels. At the same time, there was a decrease in HDL-C levels with placebo. Overall, for the entire study population, similar but less pronounced tendencies were demonstrated. Forty-two females taking Opuntia with no additional hypolipemic treatment, had a pronounced reduction in LDL cholesterol, especially after day 14. At the end of the study, 39 percent of the opuntia group, but only 8 percent of the placebo group, were no longer diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. The results indicate an advantage of using opuntia in dietary supplements and functional foods because of improvement of blood lipid parameters associated with cardiovascular risks.
Opuntia ficus-indica has been used in traditional folk medicine in the treatment of a number of diseases and conditions. Research has demonstrated that Opuntia ficus-indica fiber helps reduce fat absorption and promotes healthy weight loss. Furthermore, this same material was clinically demonstrated to increase HDL-C, decrease triglyceride and LDL-C levels, and significantly reduce the incidence of metabolic syndrome in metabolic syndrome patients.
1 Opuntia ficus-indica. Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Agricultural Research Service (ARS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Retrieved 15 December 2017.
2 Opuntia ficus-indica (prickly pear). CABI. 27 September 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
3 Osuna-Martínez U, Reyes-Esparza J, Rodríguez-Fragoso L. Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica): A Review on its Antioxidants Properties and Potential Pharmacological Use in Chronic Diseases. Nat Prod Chem Res. 2014;2:6.
4 Smeets-Peeters MJE, Minekus M. Fat binding capacity of NeOpuntia during passage through a dynamic gastrointestinal model.” Presented at VitaFoods May 2001.
5 Pilot clinical study of NeOpuntia on fat binding. Presented at Annual Conference on Weight Loss Ingredients Paris. SFA May 2004.
6 Borginie E. Efficacy and tolerability of the integrator Forlip in the treatment of overweight subjects. SIRC clinical study. CLINICA SALUS, Surgical Medical and Rehabilitative Hospital Organisation, Italy, p1-8, 2001.
7 Kendall-Reed P. Study on the effectiveness of Ultra Slim Down for the Reduction of Body weight. Jamieson Laboratories Report, Canada, 2000.
8 Linarès E, Thimonier C, Degre M. The effect of NeOpuntia on blood lipid parameters–risk factors for the metabolic syndrome (syndrome X). Adv Ther. 2007 Sep-Oct;24(5):1115-25.
Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, the dean of academics for Huntington College of Health Sciences, is a nutritionist, herbalist, writer and educator. For more than 30 years he has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines and peer-reviewed publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.