As a naturopathic physician, one of the main therapies I use in helping restore and maintain health is clinical nutrition. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients which serve a variety of physiological functions. Papayas are near the top of the "good for you" list and I often "prescribe" them for my patients.
Residents and visitors to the Big Island are extremely fortunate to be in a place where papayas are abundant and inexpensive. While living on the mainland, I would regularly browse the produce aisle at local supermarkets for prices they had on papayas. Most of the time, a medium-sized, prematurely-picked, almost tasteless Solo papaya sold for $1.99 to $2.99. So when I first moved to the Big Island from the mainland one of the first things I did was to plant a few papaya trees at the bottom of my property. For the past few weeks I have been trudging up the hill carrying heavy loads of almost ripe, delicious fruit. I thought it might be informative to collect some information on this delicious and abundant produce.
A Bit of History
The papaya tree is native to the south of Mexico, Costa Rica and Central America. In the ancient Mayan civilization, the people honored the papaya tree as their sacred Tree of Life. Some history books mention the papaya as one of the foods Christopher Columbus enjoyed. The story is that when the natives greeted the Columbus party, they were served so much food after months of meager fare at sea, that some experienced digestive pains. To cure this, the natives took them into the forest and fed them papayas, which brought relief. In historical literature, papayas were first mentioned by the Spanish explorer Oviedo in 1526 who observed it growing along the Caribbean coasts of Panama and Colombia. Shortly thereafter, papayas were taken to other warm-weather countries by the Spaniards and Portuguese.
Loaded With Vitamins, Minerals and Enzymes
Cubans call the papaya “Fruta Bomba,” which means "bomb fruit. The papaya is indeed a bomb loaded with vital nutrients, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial elements.
Papayas are rich in antioxidants like vitamins A and C. They have substantial industrial potential due to the rich content of an enzyme called papain. Papain is commercially used in meat tenderizers, but is also extracted and put into capsules for use as a digestive aid for proteins, fats, and starches.
In addition to enzymes, papayas provide other digestive system benefits. The fiber from both fresh and dried papaya helps eliminate constipation. However, if you eat a lot of dried papaya at one time, stay close to a restroom because the therapeutic can be very powerful. Papaya is also a very alkaline fruit, which helps soothe stomach upsets arising from overeating.
Scientists have found that ripe papayas contain more beta-carotine than carrots, and more vitamin C than kiwi fruit. Carotene is converted into Vitamin A in our body. Papayas also are abundant in bioflavonoids, which benefit the immune system and help prevent allergic reactions. The list of minerals found in papaya includes potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
In addition, papaya can help keep you young! Papaya helps the body to produce more arginine, an essential amino acid that activates human growth hormone. HGH is important for cell rejuvenation and for rebuilding the cells in the liver, muscles, and bones. The skin also benefits from arginine by helping to regenerate skin cells.
Women in the Java have used unripe papaya juice on their skin to try to get rid of wrinkles and old skin cells. Unripe papaya juice can be very acidic and extra rich in enzymes.
In most places in Hawaii to about 1200 feet above sea level, the papaya tree grows from seed to a 20-foot, fruit-bearing tree in 18 months, or so. The trees provide shade as well as food and require very little care and attention. Just plenty of sunshine, decent soil, mulch and an occasional load of composted chicken manure that can be bought at any garden supply outlet. The trees seed easily and yield fruit year-round. I grew my papayas from seeds from beautiful, organic papayas I bought at the Hilo Farmer's Market. Really, the trees grow like weeds.
There are about 50 varieties of papayas, many of which are inedible and not sold commercially. Papayas can range in size from 6 ounces to 20 pounds. Most common commercial varieties, such as the Hawaiian Solo, are on the small side. Papayas with reddish flesh have a taste that differs from that of the orange-fleshed types, which are sweeter.
Papaya -- More Than Just a Pretty Food
Of course, the best way to use papaya is to eat it. Ripe papayas are cut in half. After the seeds are scooped out the tender yellow to orange flesh may be removed with a spoon. Green, or unripe, papayas may be cooked like winter squash. But few people know that every part of the papaya tree is said to have some medicinal value and is used for various purposes.
The native people of South and Central America use the papaya not only for food, but also as medicine. Among their many uses for the papaya is as a balm on wounds and skin inflammations. Pieces of papaya laid on wounds and surgical incisions are reported to speed up their healing. They believe that it is a remedy for a weak liver and use it to relieve constipation. The natives also consider papaya to be effective in ridding the body of worms and parasites.
The skin of the ripe papaya is not edible but can be refrigerated and later used to as a face wash.
The seeds, however, are edible and contain high concentrations of papain. They are reputed to be an excellent liver cleanser. They resemble large peppercorns and have a mild, peppery taste. . They may be crushed and sprinkled on salads in the same way as crushed peppercorns. Tex Drive In in Honokaa makes an excellent papaya seed dressing. When dried, the seeds can be pulverized and used as a spice when cooking meat, fish, chicken, or veggies. The seeds may be dried in the sun, in a food dehydrator, or by spreading them on a tray to dry at room temperature.
The green leaves can be used to tenderize meat. Roll the raw meat within the leaves and refrigerate overnight. Add fresh or dried cut up green leaves, green papaya, and dried, powdered seeds to soups and stews. You will be surprised at the rich, delicious taste. The green leaves may also be simmered for a minute or two in water and served as a tea. Australian studies suggest the leaves are strongly anti- cancerous. In fact, Australian aborigines have long used all parts of the papaya as a remedy for cancer.
The fibrous bark of the Papaya Tree is used to produce ropes.
Buying and storing tips
Papayas that are picked completely green and firm will usually not ripen, but they can be used in cooking. For eating raw, choose a yellow or yellowing fruit that is free of black spots, holes, bruises, soft spots and other damage to the skin. The spreading yellow color indicates the papaya's stage of ripening. Fruit with a little yellow near the end takes about three to five days to ripen. Ripe yellow papayas may be stored in the refrigerator for three or four days. Refrigeration will also slow the ripening process in fruit intended for cooking.