All about papaya
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Deliciously sweet with a buttery texture, it’s no surprise that papaya was once nicknamed the ‘fruit of the angels’ by Christopher Columbus. This fruit belongs to the Carica papaya plant, native to Central America and Southern Mexico but is grown in tropical countries all around the world. In 2018, the global production of papayas was 13.3 million tonnes, with India leading with 45% of the world, followed by Brazil, Mexico and Dominican Republic.
The fruit is typically harvested when the skin is a yellowish-green colour, turning red as it ripens. The flesh is typically orange, although you can find some varieties that have a yellow or red flesh. Although the little black seeds are edible, the skin isn’t.
Papayas are hailed for their culinary and medicinal use. Both the leaves and the fruit contain numerous health benefits, and can be consumed in many different ways, whether it’s as a juice or mixed into a salad. Papaya has long been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of conditions, from dengue fever to digestive issues. As well as consuming the fruit and leaves, you can also take papaya supplements.
The leaves of the papaya plant are most commonly used as medicine and are often consumed as an extract, tea or juice. One of the most popular uses is as a treatment for dengue fever. Dengue fever causes the blood platelet count to severely decrease and extracts from papaya leaves are known to increase the count.
Papaya leaves can also be used topically, especially for treating skin and hair conditions. The juice from the crushed up leaves can be used as a moisturiser and to clear excess oil and acne from the skin. When applied to the scalp, papaya leaves help treat dandruff and remove excess oil and dirt at the roots.
Papaya leaves can also be used for culinary purposes. When cooked, the leaves have a bitter taste so are often prepared with other spices and ingredients like galangal, shallots, garlic, chillies and soy sauce.
Papaya fruit is the most commonly consumed part of the plant. When choosing a papaya, look for papayas with a reddish or orange skin and that are soft to the touch. This is when they are at their ripest and sweetest. In Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, green, unripe papaya is used in a variety of recipes.
In Thailand and Vietnam, you have green papaya salad which is prepared with young papaya, garlic, string beans, fresh chillies, dried shrimp, palm sugar, Thai basil and fish sauce.
In Indonesia, the young fruit is used in rujak, a salad of sour, unripe fruit including papaya, mangoes, pineapple and guava with a dipping sauce of ground peanuts, palm sugar and chillies. Young papaya is also cooked as a vegetable dish with coconut milk and spices like galangal, chillies, shallots, tamarind, bay leaves and candlenut.
In the Philippines, young papaya is used to prepare atchara, a relish made with green papaya, red bell pepper, radish, ginger, garlic, raisins, and rice vinegar. It’s usually served with barbecued meats or fish.
Throughout the tropics, papaya seeds are valued for their ability to fight off intestinal bugs. When consumed raw, papaya seeds have a strong, slightly bitter and pepper-like taste. The seeds are often ground or crushed and used in salad dressings, marinades, smoothies, desserts or in place of black pepper. When preparing papaya seeds, it’s important to break them free of their sac so that your stomach can digest them better.
Papayas are bursting with health benefits. One small papaya, weighing about 152g, contains:
Antioxidants are compounds which protect your body from free radicals. High levels of free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which lead to chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Papaya contains high levels of antioxidants known as carotenoids, which can neutralise free radicals. The fruit also contains lycopene, a nutrient which removes excess iron which is known to produce free radicals.
Studies have shown that fermented papaya can reduce oxidative stress in older people, including those with prediabetes, liver disease and mild hypothyroidism.
Papaya contains high levels of vitamin A, a nutrient which is needed for the production of sebum which keeps your hair moisturised. Vitamin A also contributes to healthy skin, and when paired together with vitamin C, it helps the body to maintain and build collagen, a protein and building block for hair, skin, bones and muscles.
Papaya is well known for its digestive properties. The fruit contains an enzyme called papain which helps to aid digestion. Papaya also has a high fiber and water content, so it’s commonly used as a natural medicine for constipation. The fiber in papaya also helps to prevent cancer-causing toxins in the colon, keeping them away from healthy colon cells.
The lycopene and beta-carotene content in papayas has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, and can also be beneficial for people undergoing cancer treatment. Research has shown that amongst 14 fruits and vegetables with high antioxidant levels, only papaya showed anticancer properties in breast cancer cells.
Research has shown that fruits with a high amount of lycopene and vitamin C may help prevent heart disease. The antioxidant content in papayas help to promote the effects of ‘good’ cholesterol. Studies have shown that people who took fermented papaya supplements over 14 weeks had a much better level of ‘good’ cholesterol and much lower levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol than those taking a placebo. The high content of fibre and potassium in papayas also helps to ward off heart diseases.