Perfection in Pawpaw
The sweet tropical fruit papaya—known as pawpaw in other cultures— is one of the healthiest fruits and a wonderful superfood. With its sweet and aromatic undertones and soft, butter-like consistency, there’s no question as to why Christopher Columbus dubbed it the “fruit of the angels.”
A plant of odd proportions
Originating from Central America and Mexico, the popularity of papaya has grown, making this fruit easily accessible in the US. Because of its need for tropical climates, it grows in Hawaii, which is now the most abundant area for papaya in the US. (India is the largest papaya producer in the world, and Mexico the largest exporter.)
With a shape that is an unwieldy compromise between apple and pear, papayas can be an odd-looking fruit. In most markets the length will reach about seven inches, yet papayas have been known to reach a length of 20 inches and weigh nearly 20 pounds. The skin is waxy and will change from green to red-orange when ripe. Once it has matured, the taste will be similar to a cantaloupe, although with a muskier flavor.
Two types of papaya are common in North America: Hawaiian and Mexican. These are further divided into varieties called cultivars: among Hawaiian there are Kapoho, sunrise, sunset, solo, and Waimanalo. Hawaiian is the kind typically found in local supermarkets: it’s lightweight, weighing in around a pound and is usually shorter than its sister variety. They are easier to harvest and easier to transport to other markets. Mexican papayas are larger, have a mellower flavor, and are easier to grow.
The diva plant
In every sense of the word, the papaya could be best described as a diva. The plants are destroyed by light frosts, wet soil, or if the temperature dips below 32 degrees. Papaya grows best in warmer climates where water is needed due to the high rate of evaporation, but it’s a tricky balance as their roots are fragile and rot easily. If you can look past the high-maintenance traits of this fruit, you can see the numerous benefits papaya has to offer.
The bright side is that papaya plants fruit quickly and continue to produce fruit year-round. As long as there is plenty of sunlight and water, fertile soil, and zero frost, papayas will be abundant.
Many fruits are known to contain high levels of vitamins and minerals, but there is something extra in papayas. One serving—about half of a normal-sized papaya—contains three times the RDA of vitamin C. It’s also packed with folate; potassium; vitamins A, E, and K; and antioxidant flavonoids. Even the skin of papayas has amazing health benefits!
Papain, an enzyme in the skin of papayas, promotes good digestion by helping the body digest certain proteins. Papain has also been extracted to create digestive-enzyme dietary supplements. Other companies have used it to treat sports-related injuries, and even allergies, due to its anti-inflammatory properties. The enzymes have been shown to benefit those suffering from asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and burns. Not too bad for just the skin.
Papaya is also identified as a heart-disease fighter with nutrients that prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in your body. (Oxidation is what causes cholesterol to stick to blood vessel walls and leads to plaque.)
Likewise, lycopene—found in papayas as well as a plethora of other red fruit and vegetables—helps prevent damage to DNA and fights prostate cancer. In a recent study, people eating a lycopene-rich diet were 82 percent less likely to have prostate cancer later on.
Remember when your mother told you that carrots would improve your vision? Well, research has shown that fruits, especially papaya, will improve eyesight more than carrots! The study showed that three or more servings of fruit per day helped lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration—the primary cause of vision loss in elderly—by 36 percent. Papaya, with its high amounts of vitamins, can easily help anyone reach the servings needed to receive the right nutrients.
Genetically modified papayas are unfortunately common nowadays. Back in the 1980s, the papaya plants at the University of Hawaii were struck with a disease known as PRSV (papaya ringspot virus). This virus, transmitted by mechanical activities like pruning and by numerous species of aphids, causes the fruit to yellow and exhibit bumps with “ringspots.” The first noticeable sign is that leaves become distorted. The flavor will then become bitter and disagreeable. Plants that are infected early in development will not continue to grow and will not produce papaya.
On the island of Oahu, the virus took over and wiped out almost all production of papayas. Usually if the plant is displaced, the virus will not follow: unfortunately the virus was carried with when the production moved to the Big Island. To prevent complete annihilation of the fruit, genetically modified papayas with a resistance to PSRV were created. The proteins created an immune response that made them no longer susceptible to the virus. This new papaya was grown in Hawaii in the late 90s and now constitutes three-quarters of the Hawaiian papaya crop.
There is an ongoing debate on how to proceed from here. Many groups oppose GMO papayas, yet PSRV is still prevalent. Companies like Herbal Papaya Company are working hard to use non-GMO papayas in their products. They are trying to fight PSRV by working with organic farmers to breed the strongest plants and keeping them pure and well cared for.
Finding non-GMO papayas can be difficult, but places like Kumu Farms work to keep all their produce organic. Check with local natural food stores to see if they carry organic papayas.
As previously mentioned, papayas are produced year-round, yet their peak seasons are early summer and fall. A fully ripe papaya will be soft with reddish-orange skin. Green (unripe) papayas should only be purchased if they will be cooked or are being used in a cold dish, like Asian salad. The sweet flavor has not been developed at this stage of growth. Antioxidants are also at their peak when the papaya is fully ripened, so choosing a ripe one gives your body the most benefits.
Both the inside of the fruit and the seeds are edible. The seeds have a peppery flavor that works well in salads and combined in salad dressings. The fruit, however, is much more versatile. Papaya can be eaten alone or with fresh-squeezed lemon or a lime to enhance the flavor. Other options are to add it to morning cereal, yogurt, fruit smoothies, salads, or fill half of the papaya with cottage cheese, crab, shrimp, tuna salad, or place over broiled fish. Other creative recipes use papaya in salsas, muffins, jams, and bruschetta.
No matter what recipe you choose, each one will give your body benefits only papaya can provide. The hard part will be deciding how to eat your papaya!
Pink Papaya and Endive Salad
2 pink papayas, peeled and cubed
2 Belgian endives, leaves separated
1 cup watercress
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno chile
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon agave nectar
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ cup hazelnuts
Put the papaya, endive, and watercress in a bowl. Set aside. Whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, jalapeno, and a pinch of salt and pepper to make vinaigrette. Set aside. Put the agave, coriander, and hazelnuts in a bowl and toss. Arrange the papaya and greens on two plates. Top with hazelnuts. Whisk the vinaigrette again and drizzle over salad. Serve immediately. Recipe courtesy of Raw Food for Everyone by Alissa Cohen.
Caribbean Red Papaya Relish
¼ cup Caribbean Red papaya
¼ cup yellow onion
¼ cup red or green bell pepper
¼ cup yellow squash
¼ cup fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon pepper
Finely chop papaya, onion, bell pepper, squash, and cilantro. Combine ingredients with olive oil, lime juice, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate two hours before serving. Recipe courtesy of brookstropicals.com.
Papaya-Banana Breakfast Pudding
1 small papaya, mashed (see note)
1 banana, thinly sliced
Put the papaya in a small bowl and top with the banana. Serve immediately. Note: to mash the flesh of a papaya, first cut the fruit in half lengthwise. Scoop the seeds out with a spoon and discard them. Scoop the remaining flesh out of each half and put it in a small bowl. Mash with a fork. Recipe courtesy of Raw Food Made Easy for 1 or 2 People by Jennifer Cornbleet.