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Barbary figs are a family of cactus plants. There are a whole lot of Barbary fig subspecies, one of the most common varieties being the prickly pear or nopal. While Barbary figs originated in Central America, they’re highly adaptable — so you can now find versions of these spiny plants all around the world.
The possible benefits of Barbary fig
You can consume Barbary fig as a whole fruit or use an oil extracted from its seeds. Either can support your health in varied ways, such as:
- reducing inflammation
- providing pain relief
- lowering blood sugar
- decreasing total and LDL cholesterol
- lowering heart rate
- reducing oxidative stress
- reducing post-exercise muscle damage
- lowering blood pressure
- protecting your brain and liver
- fighting cancer
- easing hangovers
- reducing body fat
When you hear Barbary, maybe your brain starts conjuring up lively images of the Barbary Coast and pirates of yore. Well, we’re on a different vibe today.
This adventure into all the Barbary fig whats, wheres, and hows may not be filled with swashbucklers but will be no less exciting for it. You’ll definitely walk away with more ideas for supporting your health than you will from “Pirates of the Caribbean 14: Hunt for The Profitable Sequel.”
These spiky floral gems aren’t just succulent treats. They carry a ton of possible wellness benefits. Various parts of the plant have been used for ages as remedies and supplements.
The Barbary fig is a species of cactus that’s been cultivated for hundreds of years. It’s native to the Americas — most notably Mexico (It’s even on the country’s flag!). But it’s now well-established throughout Africa and Asia as well — like Spring Breakers, it enjoys warm and sunny locales.
As an FYI — BFs have maaaaany aliases, and people sometimes use the names of the species and subspecies interchangeably. That’s why you may see this called prickly pear, nopal, tuna, cochineal fig… we could go on.
You can use many parts of the plant, and the Barbary fig has plenty of uses. People mostly serve Barbary figs up as food — specifically the paddle-shaped stems (called cladodes) and the bulbous fruit. But these prolific and sturdy cacti are also leveraged in:
- land management to mitigate soil erosion
- dye-making for cosmetics, drugs, and textiles (OK, technically the dyes are made from an insect that lives on the cactus, but it’s part of the Barbary Fig Cinematic Universe.)
- medicine (because of their potential nutritional, diuretic, and spasm-relieving qualities)
What about Barbary fig seed oil?
Barbary fig oil comes from the seeds in the fruit (i.e. the colorful pear). The seed oil is commonly used in skin care products, as it’s suitable for all skin types and textures. And, ya gotta love that it’s loaded with nutrients, plant compounds, and other good botanical stuff.
Check out these nutrition stats for one cup (149 grams) of raw prickly pear fruit:
The seeds alone are also packed with goodness. According to an earlier study, they’re made of:
Plus, BF seeds are a good source of:
It’s not a fig-ment of your imagination — all those vitamins and nutrients could yield head-to-toe, inside-to-outside bennies.
May reduce inflammation
It seems like every human in a white lab coat is looking for anti-inflammatories.
A small-scale animal study from 2020 indicates that Barbary fig may fit this bill. This research explored the effects of BF extracts from the fruits and cladodes on Alzheimer’s disease.
The results showed significantly decreased levels of the proteins that cause neuroinflammation as well as increased levels of anti-inflammatory proteins. There was also evidence of more neurotransmitters that help the brain regulate all kinds of cognitive functions — like memory, concentration, etc. — and behavior.
Prickly pears can also improve the inflammation sitch in the rest of your body. Subjects in a limited trial in 2018 supplemented their diets with cactus pear fruit pulp for only 2 weeks. Testing at the end of the study revealed the pro-inflammatory markers were down and all the anti-inflammatory markers were up.
We’re putting a ✅ in the Win column with this one.
Possible metabolic benefits
Metabolic syndrome is real, y’all. This isn’t a single disorder but rather a collection of conditions that can skyrocket your risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, and diabetes. It’s an unholy trinity you probably want to steer clear of if you can.
Unfortunately, it’s estimated that 25 percent of the world’s population — over a billion people — have metabolic syndrome. Let that sink in a moment.
For those affected with metabolic syndrome, Barbary fig may be a chest full of beneficial booty.
All the studies we looked at had results that suggested significant improvements on all the factors docs measure to track metabolic syndrome — like triglycerides, cholesterol, glucose levels, blood pressure, and belly circumference.
Benefits of Barbary fig seed oil
You learned that the Barbary fig seeds are wholesome little powerhouses that manufacturers can press into an oil used for personal care. (Note: You may see the oil sold as prickly pear oil, not Barbary fig oil.)
All those wellness-boosting properties aren’t sitting idle, suspended in a buttery prison until you eat it. They can also work hard to show the skin you’re in need of some serious TLC. When you anoint yourself with BF seed oil, here’s what you could expect it to do:
- nourish the heck out of your skin
- keep your skin hydrated
- treat and prevent skin damage, acne, and inflammation
Nice, huh? A real over-achieving multi-tasker. (Like your mom’s best friend’s daughter — and why can’t you be more like her, hmmm?)
Barbary fig oil vs. argan oil for hair
Because of Barbary fig’s possible antifungal, antibacterial, and wound-healing properties, it’s also a popular ingredient in hair care products. Plus, the deluge of nutrients it contains can really improve your hair and scalp health. People have used BF oil to address concerns like hair loss and damaged locks.
Argan oil is no slacker when it comes to caring for your tresses, though. It’s bursting with compounds that will help keep your hair shiny and lustrous and your scalp conditioned and supple.
So which should you choose? It really comes down to your specific goals. Each oil has a different nutrient profile. Each mineral or vitamin in the oil tends to certain symptoms or conditions. You should pick the oil that best aligns with your specific hair care needs based on what’s in the oil.
You can consume the cladodes or fruit of the Barbary fig. They’re edible raw or cooked — whole, cut, or pulped — which makes them wonderful as a stand-alone snack or a healthful, exotic add-in to other dishes. You don’t have to scour the internet for more than a nanosecond to discover a trove of prickly pear or nopal recipes.
Barbary fig’s also transformed into goods like candies, condiments, juice and alcoholic beverages, and dietary supplements. So, ya got plenty o’choices!
In terms of flavor, ripe prickly pear is sweet and has a taste that’s been likened to a berries-meets-melons fusion. The stems are mild and blend well with other ingredients, so people often treat them like a vegetable and chuck ’em into salads or scrambled eggs.
To eat your Barbary fig, you’re going to need to clean and remove the barbed outer skin first — very carefully. (It’s too tough and thorny to eat, and if you’ve ever held a hedgehog, you’ll know that spikes are not your friend.) Once you’ve trimmed the fruit/paddles, have at it!
You can look for Barbary fig at grocery or specialty food stores. Latin American markets are a great place to find BF — they might even have them pre-peeled. If all else fails, you can get your fruits ‘n’ paddles (as well as the oils) from an online retailer. These outlets may also carry Barbary fig products like smoothies and jams.
Prickly customers: A cautionary note
While it may come across like Barbary fig is the big “X” on the treasure map of functional nutrition, it’s not without some possible downsides. Here are a few precautions to bear in mind:
- Barbary fig may interact with certain medications like metformin. So, if you take meds for a health condition, check with your doctor before loading up on this otherwise healthful plant.
- Opt for Barbary fig products that a third-party lab has verified.
- Eating a lot of prickly pears could upset your tummy or cause a headache.
In general, though, most people tolerate Barbary fig well when they eat it.
Grow your own Barbary fig
Can’t find Barbary figs, or can’t stomach the cost of getting them at the gourmet grocery? If you have a dry, full-sun spot in a yard or container — you could be a prickly parent! You don’t even need a green thumb because these guys are (supposedly) easy-care plants.
You can grow your Barbary baby from a seed, from one of the cladodes, or as an already-started potted plant. Seeds are available online, though your local garden shop may have them as well. Look for the stems (aka pads or cladodes) at supermarkets, specialty food retailers, or virtual marketplaces.
Neither the seed packet nor the BF stem should be too costly. A Barbary fig in a pot could be a bit pricier, especially if it’s a large plant or it’s in a swanky vessel.
Barbary fig can take a few years to start producing fruit. It can vary — depending upon the variety of BF and your climate — but your plant may only bear fruit once a year, for a few months between June and September.
Barbary figs are a species of cactus. Prickly pear and nopal are types of Barbary fig. They’re found worldwide.
The Barbary fig offers many potential health benefits — especially from the pad-like stems and colorful fruits. Depending upon the application, you can eat the flesh of the stems and fruit or use Barbary fig seed oil. Research is substantive and suggests Barbary figs can positively affect conditions like inflammation and metabolic syndrome as well as sundry skin and hair problems.
You can buy or grow Barbary figs. So maybe go get one today!