El nopal is a symbol of Mexico and has been a Mesoamerican dietary staple that dates back thousands of years. More recently though, people who didn’t know about the many uses of the nopal have called it “the food of the future” or “green gold” in an effort to make it trendy here in the states. But unlike them, we’ve always been about the nopal life. Not only do we enjoy eating the pads and fruit but there are also a variety of other innovative uses for the cactus.
Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac in Guadalajara, Mexico has discovered a way to create a biodegradable plastic-like material using the juice from nopal pads. The material is edible and can be made into a variety of colors and thicknesses. It takes one month to decompose and if it were to end up in the ocean, it would simply dissolve in a few days or be eaten by sea life. Her plan is for it to replace single-use plastics and utensils. Unlike materials made from soy and corn, that create a substantial environmental footprint Nopal cactus requires very little water and care. Ortiz is currently researching which of the around 300 types of cactus native to Mexico have the most optimal properties.
Nopales as Medicine
The medicinal use of nopales has been known to native people in Mesoamerica for thousands of years — yes, thousands! But since modern science has gotten ahold of them, scientists have declared that it’s finally gone past “ethinic use” or “folk medicine” and can finally be taken seriously in its treatment of medical conditions like high cholesterol and diabetes. Sorry to break it to scientists, but “ethnic use” is legitimate and you’re about 8000 years late boo. Today you can buy Nopal powder, juice, teas, creams and ointments. They are used used to treat glaucoma, ulcers, enlarged prostate, skin ailments and wounds. Nopales are also anti-viral, high in antioxidants and contain substantial amounts of ascorbic acid, vitamin E, carotenoids, fibers, and amino acids.
Both leather and pleather have their drawbacks and limitations, especially since the financial and environmental cost of raising cattle and creating plastic is high. For two years, Adrian Lopez and Marte Cazarez have worked hard on perfecting a breathable, organic nopal based alternative to leather and pleather. Combining cotton fibers with Nopal, they were able to create something that looks and feels similar to the real thing. This month they traveled from Mexico to the international leather trade exhibition in Milan, Italy where they presented their invention to designers. They also hope that the material can one day replace a variety of leather goods and petroleum-based plastic materials used in furniture and cars.
We’ve heard of ethanol fuel but could Nopal gas be the future? When farmer and tortilla producer Rogelio Sosa López and his associate Antonio Rodríguez, needed a cheaper fuel source they began experimenting with the nopal. Through trial and error, they discovered that heating liquified nopal pulp with water caused the liquid to break down and release methane. They then treat it with sulphuric acid in order to extract carbon dioxide creating 96% methane concentration. They’ve been able to reduce their energy costs by 40% to 50% and have been running on nopal methane for two years at a cost of 10 pesos per liter. They’ve also found that Nopal methane can power cars with only small modifications to the vehicles. The company based in Zitácuaro, Michoacán is now called Nopalimex and they have a two-acre nopal plantation and a processing plant. The best part is the entire process is sustainable since nopal waste can be used as compost or fertilizer and the water that comes from the cactus is used to irrigate the plantation.
While the nopal plant itself is not used as a dye, cochineal is a type of red dye that comes from a type of parasitic beetle that feeds on the cactus. The female cochineal eats the tuna (prickly pear) and the color of the fruit is what gives the insect it’s bright red hue. The insects are then harvested, ground up, dried, and then — voila! Red dye powder! While the bugs have been cultivated for centuries to dye textiles, it’s become an increasingly popular “natural dye” worldwide. Starbucks actually came under fire from vegans for using the bug dye to color its frappuccinos. But you might be surprised to find that cochineal is used to dye more than rugs and ice blended coffee drinks. Some of its other uses include cosmetics, frozen meat, powdered drinks, alcoholic beverages, ice cream, candy, syrups, chewing gum, maraschino cherries, and ketchup.