Power Food: Papaya's Paradise
This sizable berry packs a tropical punch that’s equal parts delicious and nutritious.
It may be just beginning to warm up here in New Jersey, but thanks to the year-round import of this tropical delight, a culinary escape to paradise is as accessible as your local grocery store. Papayas, found in the produce department of most markets, are recognizable as green or yellow oblong melon-like mounds. Native to Mexico and Central America, this fruit—it’s classified as a berry—is also grown in parts of the U.S., including Hawaii (this variety, though, is smaller than the Mexican papaya). Don’t be intimidated by its size or puddle of seeds that await when you cut into it—its sweet tropical taste is just the start of its benefits (and you can even enjoy those seeds on the side).
Papayas are the fourth most nutritious fruit—after guava, watermelon and kiwi, respectively—according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. The group ranked fruits based on calorie count (one cup of papaya has 60) and levels of various nutrients. The papaya earned high marks for its rich content of vitamin C (88 mg, 98 percent DV), which boosts the immune system, potassium (360 mg, 7.5 percent DV), folate, (53 micrograms, 13 percent DV) and fiber (2.5 grams, 9 percent DV).
It’s also rich in beta-carotenoid, an antioxidant that converts into eye protecting–vitamin A and gives the fruit the reddish color you’ll see when you slice it open. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found papayas to be a better source of this antioxidant than tomatoes and carrots, vegetables often associated as leaders in promoting eye health.
There are topical benefits, as well. Papayas contain an enzyme called papain, which helps with digestion. It also makes papaya effective as a meat tenderizer or even a skin exfoliant. (Note: Because of this, papaya is a popular ingredient in beauty products, but speak to a doctor or dermatologist before crafting your own face mask.) A word to the wise: Raw and semi-ripe papaya contains latex, so people with an allergy may experience a reaction if they consume or use the fruit this way.
When buying, pay attention to color and feel. A papaya should be firm and streaked yellow, CSPI recommends. Storing it at room temperature for two to three days will allow the fruit to ripen. It’s ready to eat when the fruit feels soft and has turned a yellow-orange hue. Once the fruit is ripe, it should be refrigerated and eaten within a day. To eat, cut the papaya in half, take out the seeds and rinse and reserve them if you plan to use them separately. Serve the fruit whirred into a tropical smoothie alongside other warm-weather fruits, such as avocados, bananas and mangoes; chopped into a salsa to add a hint of sweetness; sliced in a salad or with yogurt; or simply on its own. Martha Stewart suggests roasting it with brown sugar, and on its webpage, the Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association offers a recipe for an impressive papaya bowl stuffed with chicken salad.