If there's one exotic fruit to make room for in your everyday diet, it's papaya. Versatile (it works in sweet and savory dishes) and easy to eat (just use a spoon to scoop it right out of its skin), the buttery, bright orange fruit now found year-round in most supermarkets is a nutritional superstar.
Papaya's main claim to fame is that it is the only source of papain, an enzyme that breaks down proteins and improves digestion. The enzyme is also an effective anti-inflammatory, proven to ease stings, burns, wounds, and postoperative pain. "Papain increases the production of immune cells called cytokines to speed healing. It also slows the blood-clotting mechanism, which improves circulation and boosts the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the inflamed area," explains Eric Braverman, MD, author of Younger (Thinner) You Diet. In fact, papain injections have been used to relieve the distress caused by slipped discs in the back.
The tropical fruit is a very good source of folate and vitamins A and E; it boasts 33 percent more vitamin C than an orange. Potent antioxidant activity amps up papaya's anti-inflammatory power as well. In a study at the University of Manchester in England, vitamin C and carotenoids (compounds that give papaya's flesh its orange-pink hue) were shown to significantly reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
The same nutrients also make papaya an estimable ally in the prevention of heart disease. "These antioxidants work together to prevent cholesterol from oxidizing, so it can't harden and build up on artery walls, a primary cause of heart attack and stroke," explains Jodi Citron, RD, coauthor of The Little Black Apron: A Single Girl's Guide to Cooking with Style & Grace. Plus, papaya is rich in potassium and magnesium, minerals that have been shown to lower high blood pressure. One small papaya contains almost 3 grams of fiber and just 59 calories, making the fruit a helpful addition to any weight-control program or healthful diet.
To get more papaya into your culinary routine, swap it for the tomatoes in salsa recipes, add it to fruit salads and yogurt, serve it over ice cream, or use it to top granola. Or try replacing raisins and other dried fruits with dried papaya in baked goods. Just don't use papaya in creamy or custardy desserts; the papain breaks down dairy proteins and will prevent the treat from setting. Unripe green papaya, which is even higher in papain than ripe, can be grated and added to Thai and Vietnamese salads. But perhaps the easiest way to get more papaya into your day is to enjoy it with breakfast. Do as they do in Central and South America, where a half fruit, spritzed with juice from a lime wedge, is a breakfast tradition, or blend cubed fruit into a smoothie, such as in the following recipe.
Supplementing with papain (from papaya) can bring relief of bloating, gas, and indigestion that may occur when the pancreas doesn't produce enough proteolytic enzymes (chemicals that help your body digest proteins). Some studies indicate that proteolytic enzymes may also relieve chronic pain conditions, such as neck pain and osteoarthritis, and help heal sports injuries. The enzymes may work by breaking up and clearing away clot-forming deposits that build up around the site of an injury.
How to take it: For digestive support, take papain 10 to 20 minutes before a meal, following dosage recommendations on the product label. To try papaya enzymes for pain relief and injury healing, take the label-recommended dosages on an empty stomach.
Safety: People who are allergic to latex may also be allergic to papaya. Those taking blood thinners and/or sedatives should consult their physician before supplementing with digestive enzymes.
How To Buy & Store
When shopping, steer clear of papayas that are bruised, shriveled, or have soft spots.
Papayas are picked green and will ripen at room temperature; they're ready to eat when the skin is reddish-yellow and yields slightly to the touch (like a pear).
Once ripe, store papayas in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to one week.