Deliciously sweet with musky undertones and a soft, butter-like consistency, it is no wonder the papaya was reputably called the “fruit of the angels” by Christopher Columbus. Once considered quite exotic, they can now be found in markets throughout the year. Although there is a slight seasonal peak in early summer and fall, papaya trees produce fruit year round.
Papayas are spherical or pear-shaped fruits that can be as long as 20 inches. The ones commonly found in the market usually average about 7 inches and weigh about one pound. Their flesh is a rich orange color with either yellow or pink hues. Inside the inner cavity of the fruit are black, round seeds encased in a gelatinous-like substance. Papaya’s seeds are edible, although their peppery flavor is somewhat bitter. The fruit, as well as the other parts of the papaya tree, contain papain, an enzyme that helps digest proteins. This enzyme is especially concentrated in the fruit when it is unripe. Papain is extracted to make digestive enzyme dietary supplements and is also used as an ingredient in some chewing gums.
Papayas offer not only the luscious taste and sunlit color of the tropics, but are rich sources of antioxidant nutrients such as carotenes, vitamin C and flavonoids; the B vitamins, folate and pantothenic acid; and the minerals, potassium, copper, and magnesium; and fiber. Together, these nutrients promote the health of the cardiovascular system and also provide protection against colon cancer. In addition, papaya contains the digestive enzyme, papain, which is used like bromelain, a similar enzyme found in pineapple, to treat sports injuries, other causes of trauma, and allergies.