When most people think of cactus, a prickly plant probably comes to mind. But pretty soon, “cactus water,” a beverage with trace minerals and a natural fruity flavor, may also be on everyone’s radar, available at your local health food store next to the coconut water and sea moss gel.
“Cactus water is hot in the functional beverage space, just like coconut water, because it’s a plant-based beverage that contains electrolytes and antioxidants,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, the Chicago-based creator of the podcast Nourishing Notes.
Still, not all commercial cactus waters are created equal. “They could be healthy — or [they] could be adulterated and not beneficial,” says Ann Marie Chiasson MD, MPH, the director of the fellowship in integrative medicine at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine in Tuscson, Arizona.
Here’s what you need to know about cactus water before you head to the store to stock up.
What Is Cactus Water?
Cactus water is sourced from prickly pear cactus pads, also called nopals, and fruit according to a May 2020 article in Food Reviews International. Prickly pears originated in Mexico, and the Aztecs used the plant medicinally, as the University of Chicago Illinois Heritage Garden notes.
While most people buy it at the store, it is possible to make cactus water yourself (more on that later).
Cactus Water vs. Coconut Water
Cactus water is sometimes compared to coconut water, thanks to its naturally occurring electrolytes — minerals such as potassium that are needed for multiple bodily functions, according to Cedars-Sinai.
Coconut Water Nutrition Facts
That said, some cactus water brands claim to contain less than half the calories and sugar in coconut water. And that’s a reasonable claim: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 100 milliliters (ml) (about ½ cup) of coconut water contains the following:
- 18 calories
- 92 grams (g) sugar
- 6 milligrams (mg) magnesium
- 165 mg potassium
- 24 g carbohydrates
Cactus Water Nutrition Facts
Not all cactus water is the same. The minerals in your water will depend on the brand you choose. Two popular companies, Caliwater and True Nopal, offer small amounts of carbohydrates, as well as the electrolytes magnesium and potassium.
According to the USDA, 100 ml of True Nopal contains:
- 8 calories
- 67 g sugar
- 7 mg magnesium
- 66 mg potassium
- 73 g carbohydrates
Meanwhile, 100 ml of Caliwater, according to the USDA, contains:
- 11 calories
- 73 g sugar
- 2 mg magnesium
- 2 mg potassium
- 67 g carbohydrates
5 Potential Health Benefits of Cactus Water
Scientific research doesn’t support most of the proposed benefits of cactus water. But here are some of the theoretical perks of the ingredient.
1. The Antioxidants in Cactus Water May Reduce Inflammation
According to an article posted by the Mayo Clinic, prickly pear cactus contains antioxidants that may lower inflammation. The registered dietitian-nutritionist queried refers to a study published in Food & Nutrition Research in August 2018, in which healthy volunteers ate prickly pear cactus fruit for two weeks and had statistically lower pro-inflammatory markers than a control group of people who didn’t eat the fruit.
Prickly pear also contains betalains, anti-inflammatory pigments known for their pink hue and antioxidant properties.
2. Cactus Water May Help Reduce High Blood Sugar in People With Diabetes
And just how much cactus water would a person with diabetes need to drink to garner those touted benefits? “There’s not enough research, and the dose is not determined,” says Dr. Chiasson. A review published in May 2019 in the journal Medicina even notes a lack of evidence for the use of prickly pear products to mitigate type 2 diabetes risk or to manage the disease. Specifically, the authors wrote that it doesn’t appear to have a significant effect on glucose or insulin.
Then there’s the added sugars in some of these products, which could be harmful to people with diabetes.
3. Cactus Water May Help You Recover From a Hangover
Theoretically, a swig of cactus water after a night of drinking may offer a hangover remedy because it contains electrolytes. As MedlinePlus notes, electrolyte solutions can help you replenish some of the electrolytes you lose after drinking alcohol heavily.
4. Cactus Water May Have Skin-Soothing Effects
Retelny points out that people have traditionally used cactus water as a topical elixir for wounds and overly sun exposed skin. (A laboratory study published in December 2017 in Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters of prickly pear cactus extracts on human skin cells exposed to UV light supports this.) That said, scientists haven’t tested this hypothesis on commercial cactus water beverages, just concentrated extract, and more studies are needed.
5. Cactus Water May Provide Relief for Digestive Issues
A few studies show this drink may benefit people living with certain digestive issues, but the research is preliminary and in animals. For example, a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that prickly pear cactus protected against stress-induced acute gastric lesions in rats. Another study, published in January 2017 in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that prickly pear relieved constipation in rats. That doesn’t mean those effects would happen in humans. “In general, more human studies are needed to determine cactus water’s beneficial effects in the body,” says Retelny.
Health Risks of Cactus Water
Mayo Clinic notes that cactus water may have some side effects, including diarrhea and nausea. Adds Retelny, “Cactus water may cause gastrointestinal distress due to its laxative nature.” It may also cause headaches and hypoglycemia. Though the latter risk may be low, judging by the results of the aforementioned Medicina paper, Retelny says people on blood-sugar-lowering medications, including people with diabetes, should be cautious about drinking cactus water — check with your healthcare team first (that goes for anyone who is on medication or managing an underlying health condition).
Another thing to be mindful of, nutritionally speaking: “If there’s added sugar in cactus water, moderate how much you drink,” says Retelny. Check the label of any store-bought cactus water to see if it’s loaded with added sugar. “Aim for less than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars,” Retelny adds.
How to Make Cactus Water at Home
If your doctor says you can safely drink cactus water, you may consider DIYing it. To do so, acquire a prickly pear cactus fruit that’s had its spines removed — these are available at Lowe’s and other stores. Boil the fruit in water and scoop out the flesh, then strain it through cheesecloth to extract the liquid, says Retelny. “You can add water or sweetener if it’s too concentrated or the flavor of the plain fruit is too strong, and then you can store it in the refrigerator for up to three days,” she suggests. (Note: Don’t add too much sweetener, or it’ll lose its status as a healthful drink.)
“Some people will freeze [the fruit], which allows it to pop open — and then defrost it and squeeze it through cheesecloth to remove the spines,” says Chiasson, who says she makes cactus water in the summer months and adds it to recipes.
Takeaway: Is Cactus Water a Worthwhile Wellness Trend?
Research on cactus water is lacking, and it has few proven health benefits, but overall it seems to offer a relatively low-carb, low-calorie alternative to coconut water (and it may have a more pleasant taste) if you want a hydrating drink that will replenish electrolytes. “I always say there’s nothing wrong with trying new products, such as cactus water, but know your own health limitations and start with small amounts,” says Retelny.
Remember to always check out the label so you know what’s in there, too. “Look at almond milk — some are good and some are not; some use very few almonds and add a lot of sugar,” says Chiasson. And understand that this drink isn’t a magic potion. “Nothing beats a balanced diet filled with whole plant foods and plenty of water throughout the day,” Retelny adds.