Packed with inflammation-fighting enzymes and antioxidants—not to mention key vitamins and minerals—papaya fruit is a tropical treat for your tastebuds and body.

By Madison Yauger
July 16, 2020
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The papaya is no doubt the middle child of the fruit family. Not only mild in manner and flavor, but this fruit is also frequently overshadowed by its fellow tropical treats (think: guava, mango, coconut, pineapple).

But it's worth taking a second look at fresh papaya—adding it to your diet will infuse your body head-to-toe with its rich nutrients and antioxidants. Here, the details of papaya's health benefits, nutrition content, and how to best use this tropical fruit.

What Is Papaya?

It's a fruit...and a tree.

Papaya—aka papaw or paw paw—is a tall evergreen tree hailing from Southern Mexico and parts of Central and South America. The tree produces a large oval-shaped fruit by the same name, with a yellow-green peel, orange-colored flesh, and pearl-sized black seeds. Today, the papaya fruit is widely cultivated in tropical regions around the world. Hawaii, India, Australia, and parts of tropical Africa are just a few of the commercial producers successful at harvesting papaya due to the fragile climate conditions necessary for growth. Cooler temperatures threaten the tree's survival and can alter the semi-sweet flavor of the fruit it produces.

While the papaya fruit is typically eaten raw (more on that below), its juice has been used as a healing mechanism in America, Eastern Europe, and Asia for centuries. The juice of unripe papayas is rich in an enzyme called papain, which has been used as a topical treatment for cuts, rashes, stings, and burns, according to the New World Encyclopedia. But is this holistic remedy legit? Some research says yes and that papaya enzyme (papain) and pulp can be very effective at treating burns and other flesh wounds. In a study comparing papaya wound dressing with conventional methods (i.e. iodine) in post-C-section wounds, the papaya treatment healed patients safely, effectively, and even faster than the iodine dressing. (If you've heard of cult-favorite paw paw ointment (Buy It, $8, amazon.com), this is exactly the idea behind it. Even Alison Brie is a fan.)

However, the topical effects of papaya are just the beginning of what this fruit can do for your body.

Papaya Nutrition

"Papaya is one of the fruits that I'm consistently recommending to my clients," says Michal Hertz, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian in New York City. "There is a long list of all of the benefits of papaya, but the main reasons I recommend it to my clients are because it not only has over the recommended daily value of vitamin C, but it also is an excellent source of fiber (approximately 5 grams in one medium-sized papaya)."

Here is the nutrition snapshot for 1 cup (of 1-inch-cut pieces or about 145 grams) of papaya, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • 64 calories
  • <1 gram protein
  • <1 gram fat
  • 16 grams carbohydrate
  • 2.5 grams fiber
  • 11 grams sugar
  • 29 mg calcium

Papayas are also excellent sources of potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, folate, beta-carotene, and vitamins C, A, E, K, and B-6.

So how does this nutrient-rich fruit directly impact your health?

Papaya Health Benefits

Before you go on to read about papaya's many health benefits, take note: If you have a latex allergy, you should steer clear of this robust fruit, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Research shows that a bad reaction can occur between Hevein, the latex allergen, and an enzyme called Chitinase present in fruits like papaya, avocado, bananas, and kiwi.

Supports Heart Health and Blood Pressure

"Papayas are rich in antioxidants, such as lycopene (a type of plant nutrient), and vitamins A and C, which have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the risk of heart diseases and certain cancers," says registered dietitian Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., a Shape Brain Trust member. "They also have 11 percent of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for potassium, and potassium is associated with regulating blood pressure." (FYI—the RDI for potassium for non-pregnant women over age 19 is 2,900mg, according to the National Institutes of Health.)

Reduces Risk of Cancer

As mentioned above, the anti-inflammatory properties in papaya are known to help lower the risk of cancer. For example, a 2014 research review suggests that fermented papaya can be used in tandem with traditional therapies (i.e. chemotherapy) to control and regulate inflammation and free-radical oxidative damage that's known to trigger different types of cancer. "Consuming beta-carotene, an antioxidant found in papayas, may also reduce the risk of developing cancer since it helps fight free radicals in the body," says Laura Iu, R.D., a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist based in New York City. (Related: The Best Skin Cancer-Fighting Foods to Add to Your Plate)

Improves Digestion

All three nutrition experts recommend papaya for digestive problems—and for multiple reasons. ICYMI above, papayas are rich in an enzyme called papain, which, when used topically, can work wonders healing wounds. But that's not all this little plant-based powerhouse can do: "The enzyme papain helps break down food in the stomach and aids in digestion," says Iu.

Hertz adds that the high water content in papaya and the papain enzyme (which breaks down proteins in the gastrointestinal tract) work to alleviate bloating and encourage regular bowel activity. "Papayas are also a good source of fiber, which can help relieve constipation," says Gans. (And although you can get backed up at any time, you might be dealing with quarantine constipation RN—another reason to add papayas to your cart.)

Regulates Blood Glucose and Diabetes

"I love fruits that are high sources of fiber because they provide a lasting feeling of fullness," says Hertz. "Fiber intake is a key ingredient for weight loss and diabetic clients because it improves your body's response to insulin and in addition increases fullness for an extended period of time." Hertz cites studies that show papaya (which, remember, has about 2.5 grams of fiber per 1 cup, according to the USDA) has a hypoglycemic effect on the blood, which means the body senses and reacts to an increase of insulin and lowers the level of blood glucose and the body's average level of blood sugar over several months (aka hemoglobin A1c). More controlled, lower blood sugar levels can help stave off health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Strengthens Vision

Foods that are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories may have the ability to lower the risk of age-related eye disease, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). And guess what? Papayas have both—particularly vitamin C and beta carotene which are particularly helpful for retaining good eye health, according to the NCBI. What's more, "papaya has 33 percent of the RDI for vitamin A which may help reduce the risk for age-related macular degeneration," says Gans. There isn't that much research linking papayas specifically to eye health, but there are many studies that indicate the antioxidants and vitamins commonly found in papayas support long-term vision health.

Prevents Inflammation

"Papain has also been shown to lower inflammation for conditions such as arthritis as the enzyme helps increase the body's production of cytokines [small proteins for cell-signaling]," says Hertz. Cytokines are particularly important because they help regulate immunity and inflammation in the body as well as work against the production and function of molecules that induce inflammation, according to the NCBI.

Promotes Healthy Skin

"The vitamin C in papaya, 157 percent of the RDI, may help reduce signs of aging," says Gans. "Vitamin C is important for the synthesis of collagen in our body, which is responsible for skin elasticity." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin C Skin Care)

Vitamin C's anti-aging effects are even more impressive when coupled with vitamin A, as dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., previously wrote for Shape. And guess what? Papaya is also packed with vitamin A—a collagen-boosting, skin-benefiting antioxidant. Papaya is actually rich in antioxidants (beyond just vitamin A) that can also brighten skin from within (read: when ingested), says Mary L. Stevenson, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologic surgeon. That being said, you can also reap these skin superpowers by applying products with papaya enzymes, such as rue Botanical's Pure Radiance Oil (Buy It, $110, ruebotanicals.com) or Kate Sommerville ExfoliKate Glow Moisturizer (Buy It, $65, nordstrom.com).

"Papaya also contains papain, which is used in many products as a natural exfoliant. Papain is proteolytic, meaning it can break down proteins, so it can soften dead keratin," she says, warning that it should be used gently. "You should never aggressively exfoliate." Instead, follow this guide to exfoliation and opt for gentle formulas such as Kinship's Naked Papaya Gentle Enzyme Cleanser (Buy It, $22, credobeauty.com) or Revision Skincare's Papaya Enzyme Cleanser (Buy It, $32, amazon.com).

In addition to promoting youthful skin, papaya can also rejuvenate your hair (when ingested and via products) by nourishing it with vitamin A, which can help produce an oily substance called sebum that moisturizes the scalp, according to a 2011 study. That means papaya, being loaded with vitamin A, might be able to help keep dandruff at bay. Stop a scratchy scalp with a little help from TGIN's Miracle Repairx Deep Hydrating Hair Masque (Buy It, $18, target.com) or Virtue's papain-infused Exfoliating Scalp Treatment (Buy It, $46, bluemercury.com).

Kinship Papaya Cleanser
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Glow Moisturizer
True Botanicals Oil
Left: Credit: Kinship
Center: Credit: Kate Somerville
Right: Credit: True Botanicals

How to Cut and Eat Papaya

But first, can you eat papaya seeds? Technically, yes, you can eat papaya seeds. Whether or not you want to consume them, however, is up to you, especially since papaya seeds have a sharp peppery flavor. Papaya skin, on the other hand, is about as edible as banana peels—certainly not poisonous, but definitely not recommended.

Now, let's talk about how to cut a papaya: simply halve the fruit lengthwise and scoop out the seeds (unless, again, you're a fan of the flavor). From there, you can cut the orange flesh into slices or cubes or even carve out bites with a spoon.

Wondering how to eat papaya? Good news: any way you want it (cue: Journey). Gans, for example, likes to keep it simple and add raw papaya to a variety of dishes. "Sliced papaya is great as a stand-alone snack, mixed into salads and smoothies, or as toppings to yogurt, cottage cheese, or hot or cold cereal," she says. "It can be chopped and made into a salsa as the perfect pairing with guacamole and chips or as a garnish for fish." (Papaya, like peaches, is also great when grilled.)

Want more inspo as to how to eat papaya? Look no further than this roundup of recipes featuring (your new fave) tropical fruit.

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