Christopher Columbus was known to call papaya the “fruit of the angels.” This orange-colored, melon-like fruit is native to southern Mexico and Central America but can be grown in most tropical areas. When ripe, it is commonly used around the world to make juice or as a delicious addition to salads, salsa or desserts. Not only that, but it is also commonly used as a meat tenderizer or digestive enzyme as well.
Papaya contains a special enzyme called papain. Papain is why it is most known to work as a powerful digestive aid. But improved digestion and helping the body to detox aren’t the only benefits of papaya. It can also help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, strengthen the blood and so much more. Like other types of tropical fruit, it’s also high in multiple vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and antioxidants. Plus, it is used around the world to boost overall health in a number of incredible ways.
What Is Papaya?
Papaya, also known as pawpaw or papaw, is a tropical fruit that is native to Mexico and northern South America. It is part of the Caricaceae family of plants and grows on the Carica papaya tree in tropical climates.
Papayas are an especially interesting fruit because their trees actually come in three “sexes”: male, female and hermaphrodite. Only the hermaphrodite plant produces the papaya fruit, while the other two kinds produce trees, leaves and seeds but not the edible fruit we know as papaya. For this reason, nearly all commercial growers plant and cultivate hermaphrodite papaya plants since they contain all of the parts necessary to germinate themselves and keep reproducing new seeds.
Today, papaya is grown around the world in many different tropical areas. India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, the United States and many Central American nations are the largest producers. The popularity of using this fruit in recipes around the world has only continued to increase over the past few decades. In fact, countries like India now account for a substantial chunk of papaya production and exportation.
1. Promotes Proper Digestion
Certain papaya enzyme compounds can help the body break down and use proteins properly. Papain, in particular, helps to break apart the bonds between amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Papain is similar to other types of enzymes made in the pancreas that help our bodies digest meat, but unlike other enzymes, it can work even without the presence of acid. (1)
Therefore, due to is ability to break apart amino acids, this papaya enzyme can be helpful for people struggling with low stomach acid who may not be able to tolerate consuming certain types meat. It also can promote protein absorption in those with other digestive issues.
Eating papaya can also help prevent constipation due to its high fiber content. Fiber adds bulk to the stool and eases its excretion out of the body. In fact, a 2012 review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that increasing fiber intake was effective at increasing stool frequency in people with constipation to help promote regularity. (2)
2. Soothes Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural immune response designed to fend off foreign invaders and protect against illness and infection. However, chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases. It is believed to contribute to serious conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and more. (3)
A 2011 study published in the journal of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that inflammatory markers decreased when test subjects were given papaya. Researchers found it may help reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms for people with certain conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is noted, however, that although further research is needed. (4)
Papain has also been shown to help decrease inflammation in people with diseases such as asthma or arthritis. (5) And not only can lower levels of inflammation slow the progression of chronic disease, but it may also help to naturally reverse signs of aging as well.
3. Strengthens the Blood
Papaya has garnered a good amount of attention as a blood strengthener to help people who have a medical condition called thrombocytopenia, or low blood platelets. This is a dangerous medical condition that can reduce the body’s ability to form blood clots and potentially lead to internal bleeding. (6)
An animal study out of Malaysia conducted on mice found that those given papaya leaf extract had significantly higher platelet and red blood cell counts after 72 hours compared to those in a control group. Although more research is still needed, researchers believe that papaya extract may eventually be used as a treatment for people with blood disorders and impaired blood clotting. (7, 8)
4. Enhances Heart Health
Papaya is loaded with vitamin C. Vitamin C is an important micronutrient that acts as an antioxidant to protect against free radical damage. It also protects against the oxidation of cholesterol, reducing the ability of cholesterol to form plaque along the artery walls.
Some research has found that a deficiency in vitamin C may be linked to a greater risk of death from heart disease, although more research is needed to determine the exact mechanism. (9) Papaya also contains folate, which can help convert homocysteine, a type of amino acid that has been linked to heart disease, into other amino acids to reduce the risk of heart problems. (10)
5. May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Several compounds found in papaya have been shown to have powerful anti-cancer effects. Papain, for example, has been shown to block the growth and spread of tumors in animal studies. (11) Meanwhile, vitamin C and beta-carotene, both of which are found in papaya, have been linked to a decreased risk of several different types of cancer. (12, 13) Plus, in addition to promoting regularity, studies show that increasing your intake of dietary fiber may also be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. (14)
6. Can Prevent Macular Degeneration
Each serving of papaya packs in a hearty dose of beta-carotene, one of the primary nutrients involved in preserving vision and protecting eye health. (15) It also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two flavonoids that can help prevent macular degeneration, or age-related loss of vision. Zeaxanthin specifically helps filter out blue light that can be harmful to the retina to optimize vision even as you get older. (16)
7. Helps Prevent Asthma
In addition to keeping vision healthy, beta-carotene has been shown to help reduce the risk of asthma. Maintaining adequate levels of vitamin A in the diet may be especially crucial for children to help reduce airway inflammation. (17)
Papaya seeds also have their own nutritional benefit. They can be eaten as well, although they are quite bitter. The seeds have been used as a folk medicine to treat parasitic infections, E.coli and other viral and bacterial infections.
8. Slows Signs of Aging
Due to the high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A and other flavonoids, papaya is a great fruit to help keep the skin healthy and wrinkle-free. These nutrients work as antioxidants helping prevent free radical formation and oxidative damage to the skin, both of which are considered some of the leading causes of aging. (18, 19)
9. Fights Viral Infections
Papaya leaves have been used treat dengue fever, a deadly viral infection from mosquitos in tropical areas. In one particular study, the leaves were mixed with water and given to patients twice a day. It was found to significantly decrease viral activity after five days. (20)
Traditional Polynesian cultures in Hawaii and Tahiti made poultices out of papaya skin to help with wound healing. Why? The skin is particularly high in papain. They would apply the poultice directly to the skin to heal burns, rashes or bug bites. (21) Papain can be used to treat fungal and viral infections of the skin, such as warts and ringworm. It helps destroy the layer of protein that protects viruses and fungi against attack, decreasing their ability to reproduce and spread.
Papaya is a nutrient-dense food. That means each serving contains a low amount of papaya calories but a high amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In particular, it is a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A. It also provides a good dose of folate and potassium.
One cup (about 140 grams) of raw papaya fruit contains approximately: (22)
- 54.6 calories
- 13.7 grams carbohydrates
- 0.9 gram protein
- 0.2 gram fat
- 2.5 grams dietary fiber
- 86.5 milligrams vitamin C (144 percent DV)
- 1,531 international units vitamin A (31 percent DV)
- 53.2 micrograms folate (13 percent DV)
- 360 milligrams potassium (10 percent DV)
- 1 milligram vitamin E (5 percent DV)
- 3.6 micrograms vitamin K (5 percent DV)
In addition to the nutrients listed above, this fruit also contains a small amount of thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and calcium.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Papaya has long been used in many forms of traditional medicine. It is thought to offer benefits in the treatment of a wide variety of health conditions. In many parts of the world, for instance, this fruit is believed to help naturally treat malaria, E. Coli and parasitic infections.
According to Ayurveda, papaya can help alkalize the body, reduce inflammation and strengthen the function of the spleen. It’s also thought to nourish the body, enhance energy levels, and improve vision and eye health.
Papaya vs. Mango vs. Pineapple vs. Guava vs. Banana
Papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and banana are all tropical fruit varieties that are beloved for their delicious flavor and signature sweetness. All are also rich in nutrients, offering a wealth of vitamin C, potassium, vitamin A, fiber, antioxidants and more. However, there are also many distinct differences that set these popular fruits apart.
Mango is a type of stone fruit that belongs to the cashew family of plants. The fruit is produced by a large tree. It is cultivated around the world in tropical and subtropical climates. Mango has become a popular ingredient used to make juices, smoothies, ice creams and chutneys.
Pineapple, on the other hand, is a fruit produced by a herbaceous perennial. It is thought to originate in the area between Brazil and Paraguay. Pineapple is often enjoyed as a snack in fruit salads and sweets. This fruit is used to balance out savory dishes like pizza or burgers as well. It is also used medicinally for its content of bromelain, a type of proteolytic enzyme often used in the treatment of osteoarthritis, sinusitis and wounds. (23)
Guava is a type of fruit commonly enjoyed in Central and South America. The skin can range in color from green to yellow or maroon. The sweet or sour flesh inside can be either white or pink, depending on the variety. Guava can be found added to beverages, candies, fruit bars or desserts. It can also be eaten raw or seasoned with just a pinch of salt or cayenne pepper.
Finally, bananas, which are technically considered berries, are a type of fruit native to southeast Asia and Australia. Closely related to the plantain, bananas are usually consumed when fully ripe. They can be enjoyed raw or added to desserts, smoothies, breakfast dishes and more.
Where to Find and How to Use
Although it was once difficult to find papaya in regions outside of their tropical habitat, you can now find this delicious fruit at most major supermarkets when it’s in season.
There are two main varieties of this fruit: Mexican and Hawaiian type. The Mexican type can grow up to 10 pounds in size, whereas the Hawaiian one is generally smaller. Both have a sweet, orange-colored flesh and dark, gelatinous seeds on the inside. When immature, the fruit is green and can only be eaten if cooked. Green papaya is used for stir-fries and curries in many Asian dishes. As the fruit ripens, it develops its yellow-orange color and its signature sweetness. A ripe papaya has orange skin that gives a little when pushed.
If you purchase the fruit to eat the same day, choose one that has a reddish-orange skin and is softer. It may take a few days out on the counter to ripen if it’s still yellow on the outside. This fruit is best eaten at room temperature. This allows the sweet flavors and familiar papaya taste to develop. If you plan to dice it up, be sure to eat as soon as it is cut for the maximum amount of flavor.
Wondering how to eat papaya to take advantage of the many micronutrients and benefits of papaya? There are plenty of different ways to enjoy. You can whip up a healthy papaya salad or make papaya juice. That’s not all. For a simple snack, it can even be eaten raw with a squeeze of lemon to enhance the flavor. There are many online tutorials for how to cut a papaya, but it typically just involves cutting the fruit lengthwise, scooping out the seeds and cutting the flesh of the fruit away from the skin.
The seeds are usually discarded, but they are also edible. They are slightly spicy and can be used as a pepper substitute in salad dressings and other sauces.
Need a few new ideas for how to bring the delicious flavor of papaya into your daily diet? Here are a few recipe ideas that you can try at home to get you started:
- Green Papaya Salad
- Strawberry Papaya Smoothie
- Papaya Salsa
- Tropical Acai Bowl
- Mango and Papaya Salad
It’s believed that papaya was first grown in Southern Mexico and Central American regions. Spanish explorers are thought to first come across papaya seeds and the edible sweet fruit. They brought them along during travels through Central America, India and other Pacific Islands.
Around 1626, it’s thought that the seeds were brought to Italy and then spread across Europe. Today, the fruit is used in many types of cuisines and dishes around the globe. It’s prevalent in many recipes from the Pacific Islands, Thailand, Hawaii, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and more. Because papaya is popular worldwide, it’s known by many different names, including “pawpaw,” which is used in many European nations and across Australia.
Risks and Side Effects
Papaya may cause allergic reactions in people allergic to latex. Papayas and other fruits contain a substance called chitinase, which is associated with cross-reactions between latex and fruit. Green papaya contains the most potential for allergic reactions and should not be eaten raw.
Many people also wonder: Can dogs eat papaya? While the fruit itself can be a tasty treat for your furry friends, be sure to cut it into small pieces and avoid letting them eat the seeds to prevent digestive issues.
Additionally, this fruit is vulnerable to a few widespread viruses and fungi, including a variety of papaya ringworm that ruins the plant’s fruit. In an effort to combat this problem, researchers began conducting experiments on the seeds to see if genetically altering them could provide protection against these harmful viruses. Researchers were successful in creating a strand of genetically modified (GMO) papaya seeds that were more resilient to pests and bacteria. In turn, they produced Rainbow papaya and SunUp papaya, two varieties that now make up 80 percent of the papaya grown in Hawaii, one of the world’s biggest producers.
While it is still possible to find non-GMO papaya sold in the U.S., you need to ensure you purchase an organic variety in order to know that the fruit has not been modified in any way. There are several health concerns associated with GMO crops, ranging from allergic reactions to antibiotic resistance, so opt for non-GMO fruit whenever possible.
- Papaya is a type of fruit derived from the papaya tree that is native to Mexico and northern South America.
- The fruit is low in calories but packs tons of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A and folate into each serving.
- There are numerous potential papaya health benefits, including enhanced digestion, reduced inflammation, better heart health and more.
- There are also many different ways to enjoy this fruit. Plenty of recipes and tutorials for how to cut papaya are available. Some of the most popular ways to enjoy this fruit include adding it to salads or smoothies, making it into a juice, or eating it raw with just a squeeze of lemon.
- Selecting organic, non-GMO fruit and including it as part of a healthy, balanced diet is a great way to take advantage of the unique health benefits that this tropical fruit can provide.
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