Papaya (Carica papaya) also known as “pawpaw” is native to Mexico and dates back more than 1000 years. The many varieties of papaya range in weight from half a pound to an astounding 22 pounds of delicious goodness!
Although many people discard papaya’s tiny black seeds, they are highly nutritious and safe to eat. They have a crunchy texture and a slightly peppery flavor. They can be ground in a pepper mill and used as a black pepper substitute when roasted.
Like many tropical fruits, papaya’s range of nutrients includes vitamins A, B, and C, potassium, magnesium, fiber, folic acid, and small amounts of calcium and iron. They also have therapeutic properties.
Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines incorporate all parts of the papaya for various medicinal remedies. For example, an extract of the peel is used for anti-malarial treatments, especially in tropical countries where papayas are grown. Papaya seeds have been used to detoxify the liver, remove intestinal parasites, and relieve the itching from mosquito bites.
The bioactive compounds of papaya show numerous health-promoting properties including anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal. In particular, the antioxidant carotenoid beta carotene, which gives papaya its color, is a precursor to vitamin A. This essential vitamin protects the body from free radicals, thus helping lower the risk of developing cancer and heart disease.
The antioxidants in papaya prevent cholesterol oxidation, creating blockages that lead to heart disease. According to the Cleveland Clinic, papaya also contains folic acid, essential for converting the amino acid homocysteine into less harmful amino acids, thus helping reduce heart disease.
Zeaxanthin, another papaya antioxidant, is found in the macula and retina of the eye. It is thought to function as a filter for harmful UV rays. A recent study by Dr. James Stringham, published in Foods, in 2017, looked at zeaxanthin and its potential to help in protecting the eye from the blue light emitted from computer screens. This study is important as screen exposure has risen exponentially over the past few years.
Carpaine is a bitter alkaloid found in papaya leaves. In early practices, the leaf was rolled and smoked to improve asthma. Leaves have been used as a poultice to treat nerves and dried to make tea.
The pulp and seeds of papayas are a good source of the carotenoid lycopene. Studies have shown that lycopene may reduce the risk of some cancers, such as prostate, colorectal, cervical, and breast cancers. Papaya leaves have cytotoxic properties. A tea of the leaves is common in countries where alternative therapies for tumors and cancers are practiced.
Lycopene studies also have shown anti-aging protection for the brain by inhibiting oxidative stress and inflammation, thus lowering the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s.
One of the best constituents of papaya is its proteolytic enzyme papain, which helps with digestive problems, gas, and bloating, especially when papaya is eaten on an empty stomach. Papain is found in the pulp of ripe papaya and in higher concentrations in the milky latex juice of unripe papayas. Historically, this juice has been used in remedies for indigestion, sore throat, inflammation, swelling, infections, and allergies.
Papaya’s high magnesium content has been linked to helping combat insomnia while improving the quality and duration of sleep.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the anti-aging nutrient retinol—a form of vitamin A—which is found in papaya, may help to improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles through its influence on collagen production. Applying papaya pulp directly to the skin has been used on burns and skin ulcers in remote rural hospitals to promote healing. Retinol is extensively used in the cosmetic industry.
According to USDA Food Data, 2019, one cup of cut papaya pulp contains about:
- 43 calories.
- 0.47 grams protein.
- 11 grams carbohydrates.
- 0.3 grams fat.
- 1.7 grams fiber.
- 7.8 grams sugar.
- 61 milligrams vitamin C.
- 21 milligrams magnesium.
- 182 milligrams potassium.
- 1830 micrograms lycopene.
- 274 micrograms beta carotene.
- 37 micrograms folate.
- 950 IU vitamin A.
Pregnant women should avoid eating unripe green papayas as the latex in the juice may cause miscarriage by inducing uterine contractions. Unripe papayas may cause a burning sensation on the skin, so those with a latex allergy should avoid eating them.
Overeating papaya seeds may cause gastritis due to benzyl glucosinolate, according to a study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 2012.
Too much papaya may have a laxative effect, causing diarrhea and an upset stomach.
Tips on Eating Papayas
- Green unripe papayas will not have the characteristic flavor or texture of ripe ones. Ripe papayas have deep orange or yellow skin. The taste is best when the skin is soft to the touch.
- To serve, cut in half along the length of the fruit, scoop out the seeds, and spoon out the orange pulp. Alternatively, they can be peeled and sliced. Some like to squeeze a bit of lime juice over the fruit. Save the seeds if you want to eat or dry them later.
- Try cutting the papaya in half and removing the seeds as above, then filling the seed cavity with yogurt—a delicious and aesthetically pleasing presentation!
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