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.
Initially green and somewhat bitter in taste, papayas are butter-yellow when fully ripe and shaped like a pear. Their pale-orange flesh has dozens of small, black, gelitonous seeds at the center, similar to a melon.
Unripe papaya is used in some areas of the world as a vegetable substitute, but is not recommended as a food when green, unless cooked. Recommended ways to eat papaya includes its juice, which is sometimes added to other natural fruit juices because of its pleasing taste, but it's also wonderful in salads, salsa, and, of course, all by itself.
Vitamin C is one of the strong points of papaya, providing a whopping 144% of the daily recommended value per serving, which is great as an infection fighter as well as a free radical-scavenging antioxidant. Other vitamins include 31% of the daily value in vitamin A, required for healthy skin, mucous membranes, and vision, and especially effective against macular degeneration. Papaya provides 13% of the DRV in folate, and good amounts of fiber and potassium, a cell and body fluid component that helps control heart rate and blood pressure.
The B vitamins in papayas such as folic acid, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), riboflavin, and thiamin (vitamin B1) are called "essential" because they're required by your body, but not produced by your body, so they need an outside source to provide what is needed to metabolize - that's why including foods like papaya in your diet is important.
Papaya is a natural remedy for many ailments, including atherosclerosis, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, and helps keep your digestive and immune systems healthy. Papaya also contains the flavonoid beta carotene, which studies have proven to help protect against lung and mouth cancers. Other flavonoids, namely lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthins, have potent antioxidant properties against free radicals that can wear down your body and cause premature aging and degenerative diseases.
Papayas contain 212 amino acids and several enzymes, including papain, a proteolytic enzyme that has an anti-inflammatory effect on the stomach, including swelling and fever that can develop post-surgery. Papain helps proteins digest faster, which discourages acid reflux, and has demonstrated effectiveness in treating ulcers and even relieving irritable bowel syndrome. Papaya seeds have been used in folk medicine to treat parasite and ringworm infections.
However, consume papayas in moderation because they contain fructose, which may be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.