Is Papaya the Healthiest Food: Between Myth and Truth
Exotic and tropically sweet, papaya is considered one the healthiest foods on the planet. Is it really so? Today we will look into what is truth and what is the myth about it.
Pear-shaped or spherical, papayas can grow as long as 20 inches. The ones we usually throw into our shopping basket at the supermarket are 7-inch long and weigh around one pound. They can be either bright orange in color or yellow with pink hues.
What makes papaya so appealing is its soft, sweet and musky-tasting flesh with a butter-like consistency. The inner cavity of the fruit contains the black, round seeds encased in a gelatinous substance. Papaya seeds are edible, although peppery in flavor, and they are a little bitter.
The fruit, as well as certain parts of the papaya tree, is packed with papain, an enzyme that helps break down proteins and boost protein digestion. This hallmark compound uniquely found in papaya is particularly concentrated in the fruit’s flesh when it is unripe. Some dietary supplements and chewing gums contain papain.
Called by Christopher Columbus the ‘fruit of angels’ and once considered exotic, papaya is now flooding the supermarket and green grocery store racks all year round. However, there is a seasonal peak at the beginning of summer and fall.
Despite the vitamins, minerals, and health-boosting antioxidants papaya is loaded with, a lot of anti-marketing has been going on around this exotic fruit questioning its health-promoting properties. Let us delve into what is actually true and what is the myth about papaya.
Papaya between Myth and Truth
Myth #1: Papaya is not nutritious
Truth: Packed with B vitamins, folate, pantothenic acid, vitamin C, flavonoids, carotene and essential minerals such as potassium, copper and magnesium, as well as fiber, papaya is also a rich source of vitamin A. A half-cup of ripe papaya provides 26 calories and below 1 gram of fat, says Nancy Correa-Matos, Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics of the University of North Florida.
Furthermore, she explains, papaya contains three times more vitamin C than the daily recommended intake. Not to mention that a half-cup of unripe papaya brings to the table around 40 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. As the fruit ripens, its carbohydrate content decreases, providing even fewer calories per serving.
Myth #2: Papaya is not popular in the United States
Truth: Despite that papaya is typical to Mexico and Central America, it was brought to Hawaii in the last century. Ever since, Hawaii has been the main region in the country to produce small-sized papaya, known as the Carica Papaya Linn species, and which invades U.S. supermarkets throughout the year.
Papaya plants cannot adapt to cold weather, strong winds, shade or flooding, which is why it is deemed to be mainly a tropical plant. One of the main uses of papain, the key ingredient in the fruit, in the U.S. is in the food industry where it is used as a meat tenderizer.
Myth#4: Only eat the pulp
Truth: Both the pulp and the fruit’s seeds are rich sources of nutrients, while the ripe pulp is loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The spicy-flavored seeds may very well be used as a black pepper substitute. Moreover, those of you who ever doubted the superpowers of this fruit, keep your eyes wide open, because the compounds found in papaya seeds have been shown to inhibit cancer development, kill viruses and bacteria, and fight inflammation in the body.
Myth#5: Papaya can trigger allergic reactions
Truth: If you’re allergic to latex, avocado or banana, then, indeed you may have a cross reaction with ripe papaya, Asst.Prof. Matos explains. However, if you consume cooked papaya, which is recommendable if you’re allergic to any of the above, you’re safe to enjoy it. The secret behind consuming cooked papaya is that the chitinases, chemical compounds related to allergic reactions when ingesting any of these products, are destroyed completely during cooking. Candied papaya is always a good alternative to cooked papaya and is 100% safe for people with these allergies.
Myth#6: Papaya is only good for eye health
Truth: The list of health benefits associated with papaya go a long way. Scientific research has proved that due to the healthy fats that the exotic yellow fruit is loaded with, it can and does provide benefits against cardiovascular disease. Rich in LDL cholesterol, papaya also helps regulate blood cholesterol levels, keeping HDL cholesterol at bay, while also acting as a vasodilator and antioxidant. Papaya is also renowned for its antimicrobial and antibacterial effects. Not to mention, it can be used as an effective pain killer in certain cases, especially in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis due to the anti-inflammatory compounds found in it. A cornucopia of health benefits, papaya has been widely used in home remedies for its antimicrobial properties and even in sports medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent in injury treatment and in the prevention of staph infections. The advantages of consuming papaya or using it as remedy do not stop here! In some regions, the flavorful fruit has also been used to treat parasitic infections. Not to mention that the fiber and oil content of this sweet powerhouse can reduce constipation.
Need more convincing to eat papaya? Here are a few more reasons to include it into your diet.
Health Benefits of Papaya that You Didn’t Know
Papaya helps digestion. Papain is a wondrous enzyme that apart from contributing to protein digestion, it also helps cleanse the digestive tract. This reduces the chances of protein conversion into body fat. If the protein in your food is not properly broken down and digested, it can lead to arthritis, constipation, diabetes, high blood pressure and other related and debilitating conditions.
Papaya Offers Protection against Heart Disease
Abounding in vitamin C and vitamin A, as well as other essential nutrients, papaya can help prevent atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease. The rich concentration of pro-vitamin A carotenoid phytonutrients in papaya aids in the prevention of cholesterol oxidation. When oxidized, cholesterol is able to attach to and build up in blood vessel walls and lead to strokes or heart attacks. The nutrients in papaya help prevent exactly that!
Plus, papayas are also packed with dietary fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels, experts suggest. The folic acid in the fruit supports the conversion of homocysteine into benign amino acids like cysteine and methionine. If unprocessed, homocysteine can damage blood vessel walls. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with heart disease and stroke.
Papain is not the only anti-inflammatory compound in the tropical fruit. Chymopapain is another super-power enzyme that can boost the effects of papain and help reduce inflammation and speed up tissue repair (i.e.: healing from burns). These two enzymes are supported in their healing action by the vitamin C and beta-carotene plentifully found in papaya. That is why people suffering from asthma, osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis feel better when they get more of these nutrients into their diets. So, if this sounds familiar, feast on papaya! Half a cup a day keeps the pain away!
Needless to say, papaya is an immunity booster! Due to its vitamin C and vitamin A-rich content, as well as beta-carotene elements, papaya can kick start your immune system and set your metabolism in motion. It is extremely efficient in the prevention of recurrent ear infections, colds, and flu.
Papaya Offers Protection against Macular Degeneration
We have all heard our mothers say when we were kids that carrots are good for our eyes. As we reach adult age though, it seems that fruit is even a more cannot-do-without element in our healthy vision diet.
According to a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology shows that eating 3 or more servings of fruit on a daily basis has the potential to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the main cause of vision loss in older adults, by 36% compared to people eating less than 1.5 servings of fruit a day. The study examined 110,000 men and women and evaluated the effect of the subjects’ consumption of fruits, vegetables, paying particular attention to their intake of vitamins A, C, E, and carotenoids and the overall dietary influence on the early development of ARMD or neovascular ARMD, a more severe form of illness resulting in vision loss.
Surprisingly, the intake of raw fruits and vegetables, antioxidant vitamins and carotenoids did not have a strong impact on the incidence of either form of ARMD, however, fruit intake definitely had a protective action against the severe form of the disease.
Are three servings of fruit a lot? Papaya can help! Add a few slices of papaya to your morning cereals, mix it with your yogurt afternoon snack or even toss it in your salads for an exotic change. Another way to enjoy it is to cut a papaya fruit in half and fill it with cottage cheese, crab, shrimp, tuna or even chicken salad. Let your imagination take control and your taste will guide you!
Feast on Papaya and Forget about Rheumatoid Arthritis
While expert opinions and research findings are divergent in regards to high dosage of supplemental vitamin C, which one study confirms that it makes osteoarthritis worse in laboratory animals, one study shows that consumption of vitamin C-rich foods such as papaya on a regular basis can offer protection against polyarthritis, a form of rheumatoid arthritis involving multiple joints.
The study findings published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases were drawn from the observation of over 20,000 subjects who developed inflammatory polyarthritis and other subjects who did not develop any form of rheumatoid arthritis throughout the study period. Investigators found that individuals who consumed the lowest amounts of vitamin C-rich foods were three times more exposed to the risk of developing arthritis than those consuming the highest amounts.
Papaya and Green Tea Prevent Prostate Cancer
Men, all eyes, and ears! Papaya and green tea can actually prevent prostate cancer, experts suggest.
The lycopene compound found in the fruit is a potent antioxidant, which is also found in green tea offers cancer protection and scientific evidence backs up this statement. A case-control study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined 130 prostate cancer patients and 274 hospital controls. The results were crucial! Men drinking more green tea presented an 86% lower risk of prostate cancer than those who drank less.
Similarly, men eating the most lycopene-high fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, apricots, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, and guava had significantly lower chances (82%) of developing the disease than men who didn’t enjoy these foods (or ate them in lower quantities).
Researchers also noted that lycopene-high foods and green tea took together had a stronger protective effect than taken individually.
Helps You Lose Weight
Papaya is also recommended for those of you who want to lose weight without too much hassle. A bowl of papaya as a mid-evening or mid-morning snack is the way to go. The antioxidants in it jump start your lazy metabolism and help regulate stool.
Papaya Kills Intestinal Worms
The antimicrobial and antibacterial agents found in the musky fruit prove extremely effective in kill intestinal worms and hence eliminating the chances of developing any associated complications.
Suffering from an acute toothache? Make a paste of fresh papaya roots (or buy it from the health store) and massage it on your teeth and gums. The bark, especially the inner bark of the tree is a fabulous remedy.
Papaya Looks after Your Skin
Papaya is a fantastic revitalizing agent, which is why it is used in the production of many cosmetic products. If you haven’t used papaya for skin care before, it’s high time you did. Papaya homemade face masks are excellent in removing dead cells and purifying the skin. Plus, if you stayed more at the beach than you were supposed to, apply some papaya magic potion to your sun burnt skin and it will work miracles. Additionally, if you’re exposed to a toxic environment or spend a lot of time outdoors, papayas fight the harming effect of free radicals and premature skin aging. Rub papaya peels on your face for a healthy and glowing skin! If you suffer from eczema, psoriasis or other skin disorders, papaya will help you forget about it for good.
The latex element in papaya is effective against acne. The flesh can also be used as a mask to heal acne. A diet including papaya will also help cure the issues internally, conferring skin a healthy glow.
Suffering from irregular periods? Papaya juice can help. Additionally, if eating green, unripe papaya regularly, it can normalize your menstrual cycle. Not only are papayas angel fruits but they are also ‘hot,’ because they produce heat in the body. This excessive heat in the body stimulates the estrogen hormone, which is responsible for the regularity of the cycle. So, eat papaya and stress no more about counting the days on the calendar!
Healthy as it may be, there are a series of side-effects you need to keep in mind though:
Papaya can have a harmful effect on pregnant women: by increasing body heat, the latex element in papaya can also induce contractions in pregnant women and may lead to spontaneous abortion. It’s best if you don’t eat it while pregnant.
Gastrointestinal irritation: eating large amounts of papaya can be harmful to your bowels and have a laxative effect. Avoid eating too much raw or unripe papaya. Consumed in amounts exceeding half a cup per day may result in stomach irritations and even lead to esophageal perforations.
Papaya seeds contain traces of the caprine enzyme, which is potentially toxic and can make nerve centers numb, which could, in turn, lead to paralysis and cardiac depression. In certain cases, caprine causes blood vessels to narrow.
However, as everything else, if you enjoy it with moderation, you’re on the safe side. Plus, it’s way too healthy to shun it completely.
How to Enjoy Papaya
Green Papaya Salad
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon hot chili paste (you can find it in Asian food stores)
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3 thinly sliced crosswise shallots and separated into rings
1 cup vegetable oil
1 green papaya (peeled, halved, seeded and julienned) (approx. 6 cups)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves (with tender stems)
1 cup torn fresh Thai basil leaves
Dressing and fried shallots:
Add the brown sugar, vinegar and 1 cup of water to a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Whisk continuously to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and allow it to cool at room temperature. Add the soy sauce, chili paste and sesame oil. Whisk to incorporate and set aside.
Cook the shallots in vegetable oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the shallots from burning. When they become a golden-brown color and crispy in consistency (10-12 minutes), remove the saucepan from heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and season with salt. Let it sit to cool down.
Take a large bowl and toss the papaya and dressing. Allow it about 15 minutes to sit, tossing occasionally. Add the cilantro and basil, toss to combine. Top the bowl with fried shallots.
Tomato Papaya Salsa
1 ripe papaya (approx. 1 pound) (peeled, seeded and diced into ¼-inch pieces)
4 large ripe plum tomatoes (seeded and diced -1/4-inch pieces)
1/3 cup red onion (diced – ¼-inch pieces)
1 ½ teaspoons finely minced and seeded jalapeño
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Zest of 1 lime (finely grated)
¼ cup fresh lime juice
Put all the ingredients into a bowl and gently mix to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 4 hours).
Grilled Shrimp with Papaya Mustard Seasoning
2 tablespoons mustard powder
¼ cup mustard
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or plum wine vinegar
½ cup honey (or more, to taste)
1 ½ pounds papaya (peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch chunks)
Lime juice to taste
24 large shrimp (peeled and deveined)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro leaves
Lime wedges (for serving)
Start a charcoal/gas grill or broiler. Adjust the rack so that it sits as close as possible to the heat source. Turn the heat up!
Prepare the papaya mustard. Whisk the mustards together with vinegar in a small bowl until the mustard powder is completely dissolved. Let it sit.
In a small heavy saucepan cook the honey over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the honey becomes thicker and turns darker (abound 7 minutes).
Turn the heat to medium and throw in the papaya. Cook, stirring every now and then, until the papaya water evaporates and the whole mix becomes mushy (about 15 minutes).
Remove from heat and combine with the mustard mixture. Season to taste with salt and lime juice. Set aside.
Brush the shrimp with oil, sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes on each side, turning once. Enjoy it with cilantro, papaya mustard and lime wedges on the side.