Papaya (Carica Papaya): Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Papaya, or Carica papaya, is a tropical fruit that represents the third most cultivated tropical crop worldwide. Brazil and India are the largest papaya producers, though Mexico is the main exporter. Florida and Hawaii are the only states in the United States that grow it.

Known for its sweet-tasting flesh and orangish yellow skin, papaya is packed with nutrients like vitamins A and C. It also supports digestion. The seeds are edible and have a spicy, peppery taste.

The fruit, stems, leaves, and roots of papayas are used to treat everything from constipation and indigestion to wounds, skin rashes, and parasites. The enzyme papain is used as a meat tenderizer, beer brewing aid, and for treating scars and warts.

Incorporating papaya into your meal plan can provide many health benefits. Research suggests that certain compounds in papaya may be able to assist in reducing inflammation, improving, digestion, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease progression.

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Papaya is rich in lycopene, a pigment called a carotenoid (related to beta-carotene) that gives fruits and vegetables a red color. Lycopene is an antioxidant with several anti-cancer properties. It can reduce the risk of cancers and slow the growth of tumors. For example, one older study found that lycopene may play a role in reducing prostate cancer.

Papaya is also rich in vitamin C. Another study found that women with a family history of breast cancer who took 205 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C from food daily had a 63% lower risk of breast cancer when compared with women with a family history of breast cancer who only got about 70 mg of vitamin C daily.

The American Heart Association (AHA) indicates that antioxidants like lycopene in papaya may also reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. The fiber in the fruit may also help lower cholesterol.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disorder. It has been linked to oxidative stress, which occurs when free radicals outnumber antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells, including brain cells. To counteract this effect, researchers are studying the use of fermented papaya powder in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Research suggests that papaya powder may counteract the effects of oxidative stress and slow the progression of the disease. After receiving the powder for six months, study participants experienced a 40% reduction in a biomarker that shows oxidative damage.

That said, papaya extract is much more concentrated than whole papaya. The effects of whole papaya have not been studied in people with Alzheimer’s disease. This study was also very small. More research is needed.

Papayas are high in fiber, so they may help promote healthy digestion and lead to satiety (the feeling of fullness), which reduces overeating. The additional fiber adds bulk to stool (poop) and helps prevent hemorrhoids (swollen veins around or within the anus and rectum) and diverticular diseases (gastrointestinal, or GI, conditions). Research has demonstrated that high-fiber diets are associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers.

Papayas are also 88% water. The combination of water and fiber may keep things moving in your digestive tract. Plus, eating a high-fiber diet has been linked to healthy blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels.

The vitamin C in payapa also supports immune health. Adequate intakes of vitamin C are important for immune health. It can help fight off illnesses and infections, and it may help with wound healing.

Vitamin C might also:  

  • Help prevent or delay certain cancers and heart disease
  • Promote healthy aging
  • Help decrease the length and severity of cold symptoms

One cup of papaya contains 88.3 mg of vitamin C—an amount that helps you achieve (or come very close to achieving) your vitamin C needs for the day. The Daily Value (DV) recommendations are 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men.

Most people think of carrots when it comes to good sources of beta-carotene and vitamin A. However, papayas are a better source. They have three times more bioavailable beta carotene than both carrots and tomatoes.

This is important for vision and eye health, especially since beta-carotene may help slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration (the most common form of vision loss in older adults).

Free radicals are unstable molecules that may trigger a process that can lead to cell damage. Oxidative stress happens when there are more free radicals in the body but fewer antioxidants available to remove them. It can lead to inflammation and chronic disease.

One recent review indicates that papaya extracts may protect against inflammation, aging, and chronic diseases by protecting the body against oxidative stress. More research is needed to determine the safety of using papaya extracts to address medical conditions.

Rich in vitamins A and C, papaya is also packed with beneficial nutrients like potassium, beta-carotene, and lycopene. One cup of fresh papaya chunks, cut into one-inch cubes, has just 62 calories and 2.5 grams (g) of fiber. It’s also high in water content making it a great choice for anyone looking to incorporate more fruits and vegetables or boost their hydration. Here is a breakdown of the nutritional profile of papaya:

  • Calories: 62
  • Fat: 0.4 g
  • Sodium: 11.6 mg
  • Carbohydrates: 16 g
  • Fiber: 2.5 g
  • Sugars: 11 g
  • Protein: 0.7 g
  • Vitamin A: 68.2 micrograms (mcg), or 7% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin C: 88.3 mg, or 98% of the DV
  • Potassium: 263.9 mg, or 5% of the DV
  • Folate: 53.7 mcg, or 13% of the DV
  • Beta carotene: 397.3 mcg
  • Lycopene: 2650.6 mcg

For the most part, eating ripe papaya does not cause too many side effects—unless you have allergies. Those who are allergic to latex may experience a reaction to eating papaya. You might also have a food allergy to papaya or experience oral allergy syndrome (OAS) if the fruit cross-pollinates with something you are allergic to. OAS is a reaction that occurs when your mouth and throat come into contact with food like raw fruits and vegetables.

Unripe papaya is unsafe for pregnant people. Some studies have found that the enzyme papain—which is more prevalent in unripened papaya—might poison an unborn baby or cause birth defects. For this reason, make sure you’re eating a ripe papaya, or perhaps consider waiting until after the baby is born before adding the fruit to your diet.

The papain in unripened papaya can also damage your esophagus whether or not you’re pregnant.

To select a ripe papaya, look for one that’s mostly yellow or orange with just a few green spots. Papayas that are mostly green are not ripe while those with a lot of soft spots or darker shriveled skin are overripe or spoiled. You also can press the papaya’s skin to check for ripeness. If it gives just a little bit like a ripe avocado might, it is likely ready to eat.

Papayas are often compared to melons, but they’re not as sweet. They also tend to have a softer texture. Here are some ideas if you are interested in adding papaya to your diet:

  • Eat it plain: Slice the papaya into chunks and eat it alone or with a meal or snack
  • Blend it into a smoothie: Dice up papaya or use frozen cubes and blend with bananas, Greek yogurt or dairy-free yogurt, coconut milk, ice cubes, and vanilla extract
  • Create a papaya salsa: Combine diced papaya with mango, jalapeno, red pepper, cilantro, avocado, and lime juice and serve alongside your favorite fish or as part of a taco
  • Add it to fruit salad: Make a tropical fruit salad with papaya, mango, pineapple, star fruit, and banana
  • Develop a sauce or soup: Use papaya to create a barbecue sauce, a sweet and sour sauce, chutney, spicy marinade, or even a chilled soup
  • Use it as a topping: If you want to add a little pizazz to your Greek yogurt, consider using papaya as a topping, or try it with whipped cream and nuts
  • Grill it: Grill papaya as a side dish or dessert, perhaps topping it with ginger, a drizzle of honey, and whipped cream
  • Eat the seeds: The seeds have a peppery taste, so try them on top of a salad or roast them and eat them as a snack or as a topping to another dish
  • Make ice cream, sorbet, or milkshakes: Blend papaya with coconut cream, vanilla extract, and sugar, then freeze it (or use an ice cream maker)—or make papaya sorbet or milkshakes
  • Bake bread: Use a zucchini or banana bread recipe and substitute papaya

Papaya is a tropical fruit rich in vitamins A and C as well as other important nutrients like potassium, beta-carotene, and lycopene. It’s a nutritious choice for any meal plan, and it may offer health benefits like reduced inflammation, slowed Alzheimer’s progression, healthy digestion, and cancer prevention.

Most people can enjoy ripe papaya unless they have allergies, but unripened papaya can be dangerous during pregnancy and harmful to your esophagus. Be sure to choose a ripe papaya and eat it fresh, grilled, in sauces and smoothies, or even baked into bread.


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