By Brenda Norrell

Photo: Nopalitos, cactus pads, health food for diabetics.

SERILAND, Sonora, Mexico — In the spring of the year 2000, Seri, O’odham and Yaqui walked from the Seri coast of Mexico, across the Sonora Desert, to Tucson, Ariz., in the Desert Walk for Health and Heritage.

In Ali Cukson, Ariz., on the Tohono O’odham Nation near the border, O’odham greeted them with the old songs sang for tired runners from their sacred Baboquivari Mountains.

Crossing the desert on foot with saguaro ribs for walking sticks, the walkers promoted indigenous foods in the fight against diabetes. Seri said they prepared for the journey by purifying themselves with tea brewed from the ironwood plant.

”Native foods and medicines protected Native people from diabetes for centuries,” said walker and ethnobotantist Gary Nabhan. ”Wherever indigenous people live, eating local indigenous food is better for their bodies, their communities, their economies, and the land itself.”

Nabhan said mesquite beans and acorns rank among the top 10 foods ever analyzed for effectively controlling blood sugar. Cactus foods like nopalitos also provide an abundance of fibers known as gums and mucilages that help break down carbohydrates for digestion and convert sugars slowly.

Cooking over open campfires, they baked mescal from the agave plant and prepared soups of snail and shark fins. There was also venison, and chia seed drink, stewed nopalitos (cactus pads) and cholla cactus buds. They ate chapalote, a Native ground popcorn at night, and greeted the mornings with mesquite and amaranth pancakes, topped with prickly pear syrup. Wild blossoms provided a punch of ocotillo flowers.

DIABETES NIGHTMARE: Donuts for breakfast, followed by colas and potato chips

Donuts and sugary foods for breakfast are common today, and the worst choice for diabetics. They cause the blood sugar to peak high, then crash. Soft drinks, canned colas, are among the most detrimental drinks, most have 12 teaspoons of sugar. Many children drink several colas or soft drinks a day, three colas usually equals 36 teaspoons of sugar.

Sugar-free, diet colas, contain chemicals harmful to health, including chemicals related to migraine headaches.

To break the soft drink habit, try iced herbal teas or water with lemon and lots of ice. When buying juices, make sure the label says “juice” or 100 percent juice, and not “drinks” which are packed with sugar or made with corn syrup. The challenge is to get safe drinking water in all communities, especially along the border. (Beware of leaving plastic bottles of water in the sun in the car, as the toxins released from the plastic can cause cancer. Also, the thin plastic bottles of water produce toxins when water is frozen and thawed for drinking.)

Try oatmeal or other cooked whole grains for breakfast, or whole wheat toast and eggs. Oatmeal helps lower cholesterol and levels out blood sugar as it digests slowly. Or try the mesquite muffins or amaranth pancakes below.

Diabetics need to eat often, three smaller meals with nutritous snacks in between. Cheese, meat, leftovers and vegetables can be used for snacks. For the best health, eat fresh salads at least a few times a week.

Greasy gravies, potato chips and similar high fat foods are detrimental to everyone’s health. Food swimming in grease or salt is especially damaging to the heart and increases chances of high blood pressure.

FOOD ITEMS: In southern Arizona, nopalitos, prickly pear cactus pads, are available in many grocery stores. When cooked, the thin-sliced nopalitos taste similar to green beans. In the markets, other items such as mesquite or amaranth flour, can be found at health food stores, health coops or at Native Seeds Search in Tucson. San Xavier Cooperative Farm sells cholla buds and other Native foods. See Resources below.



1 lb nopalitos, nopales prickly pear cactus paddles that have been stripped of spines, cleaned, and chopped

     Olive oil

     2 large cloves garlic, minced

     1/2 red onion, roughly chopped

     1 jalapeño pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped

     1 medium tomato, roughly chopped

     Salt and pepper


Heat a tablespoon of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) in a large sauté pan on medium high heat. Add red onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cook for a minute, stirring occasionally, then add the nopalitos. Cook for several more minutes. Then add the chopped tomato. Continue to cook until all vegetables are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 3 to 4.
Carrot-Mesquite Muffins

 2 C grated carrots

2 lg eggs

½ C vegetable oil

¼ C molasses and honey mixed

1/3 C sugar

½ tsp vanilla

¼ C rice, soy, or regular milk

1 2/3 C all purpose flour

1/3 C mesquite flour

¼ C oat bran

¼ C granola

1 tsp cinnamon

1 ½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

½ C raisins (optional)

½ C granola for garnish (optional)

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Oil muffin tins. Mix egg, carrot, oil, milk, sugar, and molasses in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl mix flour, mesquite meal, granola, bran, spice, baking powder, and salt. Mix dry ingredients into wet until just mixed. Add raisins and stir in, leaving batter slightly lumpy. Spoon batter into tins, filling about ½ full. Sprinkle with granola and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes or until knife comes out clean.

Mesquite Cornbread

¾ C each cornmeal and flour

½ C mesquite meal

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp each baking soda and salt

1 C buttermilk or yogurt

1 egg

3 T maple syrup or honey

3 T oil

Combine dry ingredients in medium-sized bowl. Combine the wet ingredients and stir into the dry ingredients just until combined. Spread into greased 8 x 8” pan. Bake 20-25 minutes at 350 de­grees. Optional: mix in with dry ingredients— 1 C fresh or frozen corn, ¾ C grated jack cheese, 3 T minced onion, 1 T chipotle flakes.

Amaranth Pancakes


  • 1 cup amaranth flour
  • 1/2 cup arrowroot powder, available at health food stores
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds or other ground nuts
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey


  1. In a large bowl, combine amaranth flour, arrowroot, almonds, baking soda and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, combine water, lemon juice, oil and honey; mix well. Stir liquids into flour mixture; mix well.
  2. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Drop the batter by spoonfuls onto the griddle, using approximately 2 tablespoons for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot.


Read atbout TOCA at:

MARKET:  The San Xavier Co-operative Farm, south of Tucson on Tohono O’odham land, sells tepary beans, cholla buds, melons in season, and other traditional foods: San Xavier Cooperative Farm, 8100 S. Oidak Wog, Tucson. (520) 295-3774

COOKBOOK:  TOCA’s cookbook, “From I’Itoi’s Garden, is available at

Tucson Native Seeds Store recently moved. After twelve years on Fourth Avenue, the new store is at 3061 N. Campbell Avenue, just south of Ft. Lowell.  Native Seeds Search catalogue for seeds:

MORE mesquite recipes at Native Seeds Search: