A couple of years ago, if someone mentioned “cactus water”, you’d probably picture it as something you’d reluctantly consume as a last resort to ward off dehydration if you ever got stranded in a desert.
Fast forward to today, cactus water is one of the hottest plant-based drinks that’s making waves in the functional beverage space. So much so that it’s been dubbed “the new coconut water.”
According to Grand View Research, the global packaged cactus water market size was estimated at $16.7 million in 2019 and is expected to hit $73.7 million by 2027.
But what exactly is cactus water? “Cactus water is made by squeezing the juice out of the pink fruit of the prickly pear cactus (also known as nopal cactus),” explains Lisa DeFazio, a California-based registered dietitian nutritionist.
So what makes cactus water the “it” drink?
Prickly pear fruit is chock full of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, betalain, quercetin, taurine, isorhamnetin and carotenoids that are associated with reducing or inhibiting cell damage caused by scavenging free radicals.
In addition, it also contains a handful of electrolytes like potassium, magnesium and calcium that are vital for regulating fluid balance and maintaining the health of your bones, muscles, nerves, kidneys and heart.
Thanks to its rich antioxidant and electrolyte profile, prickly pear may reduce inflammation. This is why chugging cactus water post-workout can help regulate the balance of fluids in your body, prevent muscle cramps, stabilize blood sugar and speed up muscle recovery.
Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties also mean that it may be beneficial for protecting your skin from free radical damage that causes breakdown of collagen–resulting in wrinkles, fine lines, dullness, dark spots, uneven skin tone and loss of elasticity.
According to a controlled animal study, cactus water may even be effective in diminishing the appearance of scars.
Meanwhile, a 2015 meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrition suggests that prickly pear fruit may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Moreover, it may aid in healing stomach ulcers as well, says DeFazio.
Other than that, “it’s also low in calories and sugar,” adds the nutritionist. One cup of packaged cactus water contains approximately 19 calories and four grams of sugar.
However, certain brands might add more sugar to enhance flavor, which would increase the calorie count per serving. So you’ll probably want to check the product label to see exactly what ingredients are in there.
Is it really better than coconut water?
“In some ways, yes,” says DeFazio. “Typical coconut waters have about 70 calories and more than 15g of sugar. In comparison, cactus water has half the calories and sugar,” she explains.
Cactus water also seems to have an edge in the flavor department. While coconut water is an acquired taste, cactus water has a more relatable fruity flavor with a slight berry undertone. So it might be easier on the tastebuds for some folks.
The downside to cactus water
Cactus water can have a laxative effect in some people, resulting in diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems, says DeFazio. So those with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) should be careful, she advises.
There is also not enough reliable information regarding the safety of consuming cactus water if you’re pregnant or nursing.
If you’re taking any medication, either prescription or over-the-counter, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first before incorporating cactus water into your diet.
Additionally, it’s important to be mindful of the quantity as drinking too much cactus water could lead to hypoglycemia, warns DeFazio. Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar levels drop below the healthy range, making it difficult for bodily functions to continue. Common symptoms include dizziness, headache, nausea, excessive sweating, palpitations and loss of consciousness.
Final verdict: “I think it’s worth a try, especially if you’re bored with drinking [regular] water all day,” says DeFazio. “[It] can be a tasty way to stay hydrated,” she adds.