Power Foods: Papaya

Nothing says the tropics like a juicy, sweet papaya. But this delectable fruit, sometimes referred to as pawpaw, does more than stimulate the taste buds. According to one Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group, papaya ranks among the top five fruits for health alongside guava, watermelon, grapefruit, and kiwi -- and well ahead of more traditional fruits like apples, bananas, and oranges.

Papaya-Berry Yogurt Parfaits
Papaya, Shrimp, and Soba Salad

Health Benefits
Ripe papayas contain nearly a three-day supply of vitamin C and a significant amount of vitamins E and A (the latter generally comes in the form of beta-carotene, which contributes to the oblong fruit's bright color). These powerful antioxidants are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, some cancers, and the chronic ailments related to aging. Papayas may also help improve skin, strengthen nails and hair, and, when applied topically, fade freckles.

Papaya's most well-known attribute is its ability to act as a potent digestive aid. In ripe papayas, this comes as a result of a high fiber content. But the real power lies in the unripe green papaya; its skin and fruit contain high levels of the digestive enzyme papain, a proteolytic enzyme that behaves much like the ones produced by the gastric juices of the stomach.

This native Central American fruit contains a high amount of folate, too, which aids in cell production and helps prevent anemia.

How to Buy
Choose slightly soft papayas with reddish-orange skin. Yellowish fruit will take several days to ripen. To speed the process, place the papaya in a paper bag with a banana (leave it on the counter). Green papayas, while delicious in Asian-style salads, have not developed this fruit's characteristic juicy flavor. Ripe papayas will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.

Cooking Tip
You'll often find that papaya recipes contain an acid, such as lemon juice, or something tangy, like tamarind. That's because these flavors enhance the sweetness of the fruit. To serve, cut up the papaya like a melon and remove the seeds, then squeeze a little lemon or lime juice on top. The seeds, which have a slightly peppery taste, are edible as well. Sprinkle a few on a salad or use as a garnish.

Did You Know?
You can use papaya as a home remedy to reduce the itch and irritation caused by mosquito bites. The enzyme papain, found in green papaya, works as the active component, breaking down the aggravating proteins injected by the insect. Simply rub a bite with a piece of the thinly sliced fruit. Note: Do not try this remedy if you are allergic to insect venoms.

Text by Jane Black; photographs by Kate Sears

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