By Dr. Mercola
Once believed to be native only to Southern Mexico and Central America, papayas are now commonly found in every tropical and subtropical country.
Although they have exacting climate conditions for growth and fruit production, they do make good plants for container gardens when the moisture and temperature levels can be controlled.
The plant is short-lived but fast growing, reaching between 10 and 12 feet in height in the first year. Although papaya plants look like trees, they are actually large herbs with hollow green or deep-purple stems, thicker at the base.
Successful commercial production primarily occurs in Hawaii, tropical Africa, the Philippines, India and Australia.1
There are two different types of papaya, Hawaiian and Mexican. The most commonly found type in the grocery store is the Hawaiian variety. This is probably because the Hawaiian plants are shorter and the fruit slightly lighter, making them easier to harvest.
Mexican papaya fruit can weigh up to 10 pounds and be 15 inches in length. The fruit and seeds are edible. The papaya is juicy, sweet and tastes a little like cantaloupe, while the seeds have a spicy flavor suggestive of black pepper.
When grown at home, the plants should be replaced every four years to continue to harvest sweet fruit.2 Most Hawaiian papaya, as well as papaya grown in China, is genetically engineered (GE), so it’s important to only purchase organic papaya to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The Versatile Power of the Papaya
The papaya is a power-packed fruit with more health benefits than you might imagine. However, fruit that is sprayed with insecticides and fungicides may create more health problems than potential benefits. Carefully choose papayas grown organically to reduce the negative effects on your health.
1. Vitamins C and A
Papaya fruit has more vitamin C than an orange, and 1 cup has 144 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin C.3,4
Vitamin C is important in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, stroke, breast cancer, stomach cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts and gout, and plays a significant role in supporting your immune system.5
The fruit also has 31 percent of the RDA of vitamin A, which is important in the regulation of gene expression, prenatal and postnatal development and red blood cell production, and helps prevent cancers of the skin, breast, liver and prostate.
2. Reduces Arthritis Pain
The presence of papain and chymopapain in papaya is in part responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of the fruit.6 The reduction of inflammation reduces pain at the joints.
In addition, a research study in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases discussed findings linking low levels of vitamin C with a higher risk of developing arthritis.7
High in vitamin C and papain, the papaya plays a role in prevention of and reducing pain and inflammation from arthritis.
3. Reduces Menstrual Pain
Papain may also help reduce the pain of cramps and regulate flow during a woman’s menstrual cycle.8
4. May Reduce Cardiovascular Disease
Papaya is one of the richest food sources of folate you can purchase at the grocery store. Folate is important in the reduction of homocysteine levels in your body.9,10
Homocysteine is an amino acid associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, folate is also important in preventing neural tube defects in developing babies.
5. Helps to Prevent DNA Damage
Papaya is packed with antioxidants that prevent damage to your cell DNA. This is one of the ways that papaya may help to prevent certain cancers and reduce the appearance of aging in your skin.
6. Lowers Blood Sugar in People With Diabetes
Fermented papaya fruit may lower blood sugar in people with diabetes. Before adding this to your daily regimen, discuss stringent blood sugar monitoring with your physician in order to prevent accidental hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.11
Also keep in mind that this effect was due to fermented papaya. If you have diabetes, you’ll want to consume fresh papaya only in moderation because it is relatively high in fructose.
7. May Help Prevent Macular Degeneration
Papaya is rich in vitamin A, which is very important in the prevention of macular degeneration and other eye conditions.
8. Antioxidant Effects on Alzheimer’s Disease
Free radicals are produced in your body during metabolism and due to other factors like stress, poor diet and exposure to environmental pollution. Like other reactions and chemicals, these free radicals should exist in a balanced state.
When too many are produced, for instance due to the types of food you eat, they create a state of oxidative stress in your body.12 Free radicals in your brain may be an important factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.13
In one study, individuals who ate fermented papaya for six months experienced a 40 percent reduction in one biomarker of oxidative stress damage to DNA, increased aging and the development of cancer.14,15
9. Prostate Cancer
The antioxidant and high vitamin content of papaya play a significant role in the prevention of certain cancers. One study found that the combination of green tea and lycopene had an effect in the prevention of prostate cancer.16 Papaya is rich in lycopene.
10. Improved Digestion
Papain is a digestive enzyme that aids in the breakdown of proteins. People living in the tropics have long used papaya to aid in the treatment of constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. The fruit is easy to digest and the high fiber content may improve your intestinal health.17
11. Seeds and Pulp Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Although the fruit is tasty, the pulp and seeds are also edible. In one study, the activity of benzyl glucosinolate (BG) compounds found in the seeds and pulp were demonstrated to have cancer-inhibiting properties.
The study found that the pulp contained more of the BG compounds before maturing while the seeds had similar strength of BG at every stage of ripening.18
How to Pick Out the Best Papaya
The papaya is one fruit that will ripen off the plant in your home. Look for a papaya that is slightly green to yellow. It can ripen to maturity in your home, out of the refrigerator, in two to three days.
Fully ripe, the papaya is bright yellow and the flesh soft to the touch. Avoid fruit that’s overly soft at the stores or has areas that are bruised or damaged.
Once fully ripened on the counter at home, you can store it in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to seven days before it will become too soft to eat. Another method is to ripen the fruit in a brown paper bag. This traps the ethylene gas produced during the ripening process and helps the fruit to ripen more quickly.
Keep the bag away from heat as this will cause the fruit to rot instead of ripen. As mentioned, it’s important to seek out organic papaya, not only to avoid exposure to pesticides but also because GE papaya is widespread.
A ripe papaya is most often eaten fresh. Peeled and seeded, it can be cut into wedges and served as you would a cantaloupe. Sometimes a few seeds are left attached to add a peppery flavor. The flesh can also be cubed and added to a fruit salad, fruit cup or salsa. When firm, a papaya can be seasoned and baked like you would a vegetable. A fully ripe fruit can be pureed and made into sauce for desserts.
Papaya can also be sliced in half, pulp and seeds removed and the center stuffed with raisins, strawberries, walnuts and raw grass-fed yogurt for a healthy dessert (you’ll want to eat this in moderation to avoid consuming too much fructose). The fruit can also be added to smoothies or top your dinner salad. There are so many ways to enjoy this tropical powerhouse.
Toxicity and Allergies
Since the 1960s, there have been research studies evaluating the fertility effects of the papaya plant on men, women and pregnancies. It appears that the latex in the plant, higher in fruit that is not ripened, has an abortive effect in animal models.19 The fruit also appears to influence the menstrual cycles of lab animals. For obvious reasons, these results have never been tested in humans.
Clinical reports of allergies to the papaya fruit are rare. When they occur, clinical symptoms of itching and swelling in the mouth or runny nose are most common.20 The papaya plant contains enzymes called chitinases that may cause a cross-reaction if you have an allergy to latex and the foods that contain them.
While the papaya fruit has many health benefits, it is an overall healthy eating pattern that is most important in preventing disease and achieving good health. My optimized nutrition plan can help you change your eating patterns and develop eating habits that support a lifetime of good health and optimal energy.