The papaya plant is a small tree, Carica papaya L. (family Caricaceae), native to tropical America but found in tropical areas throughout the world. Its trunk, which is nonwoody and hollow, produces large, deeply lobed leaves and smooth-skinned cantaloupe-like fruits or melons directly on its surface without intervening branches.
When ripe, the fruits are a very desirable food. Shallow cuts made on the surface of fully grown but unripe fruits cause them to exude a milky sap or latex that after collection and drying is known as crude papain. In addition to the large quantities produced by incising the fruit, about 2 percent of papain is found in papaya leaves.
Papain, or vegetable pepsin as it is sometimes called, is a mixture of proteolytic enzymes with a fairly broad spectrum of activity; it hydrolyzes not only proteins but small peptides, amides, and some esters as well. Other components of the crude enzyme mixture hydrolyze both carbohydrates and fats.
This wide range of activity accounts for the use of papain in folk medicine for digestive disturbances of all kinds but particularly for those associated with protein-rich foods. The enzyme and the papaya leaves are also employed as a vermifuge (expels intestinal worms), especially for tapeworms. As a digestive aid, papaya tablets containing between 10 and 50 mg of papain are commercially available.
Papain, contained in the plant's whitish juice, or latex, is an enzyme that breaks up protein. In its pure form, it can "digest" up to 35 times its own weight in lean meat, and so it is in great demand as a meat tenderizer.
Medically, it is prescribed for people who have difficulty digesting protein and is used to break up blood clots after surgery. In addition, doctors and scientists have been studying the use of a sister enzyme, chymopapain, to shrink ruptured or slipped spinal discs.
A certain amount of papain is contained in all of the plant's juices, but the richest supply is in the leaves and in the skin of the unripe fruit.
Only the latex from the unripe fruit is pure enough to make harvesting worthwhile, however, and gathering it is a labor-intensive process.
Although groves of wild papaya dot the landscapes of southern Mexico and Central America, where the plant probably originated, and cultivated forests are found in nearly every tropical area of the world, only in a few places - principally in Zaire in central Africa - is the latex gathered.
Face creams, lotions, cleansers, and so on are often formulated with papain in the belief that the enzyme will exert "a digestive effect on freckles and other sun blemishes" while cleansing the pores of makeup and providing a general "softening" effect.
However, the use of papain most familiar to every housewife is as a meat tenderizer. The enzyme mixed with salt as an activator and a carbohydrate dispersing agent is sold in every supermarket. When shaken on tough meat before cooking, especially beef, it acts as an effective tenderizer by predigesting to some degree the fibrous animal protein.
Various commercial applications of papain such as chill-proofing beer and clarifying fruit juices are interesting but beyond the scope of this discussion.
Those who drink a tea prepared from papaya leaves as a digestive aid should be aware that (according to French) the leaves should first have been subjected to a fermentation process similar to that used for black tea. This is said to facilitate extraction of the active principles by boiling water and to brew a much richer beverage than is obtained with ordinary dried papaya leaves.
Fruit, Iatex, leaves, flowers, seeds.
Papaya's main medicinal use is as a digestive agent. The leaves and fruit can both be used to support sound digestion (the unripe fruit is especially effective). The latex from the trunk of the tree is also applied externally to speed the healing of wounds, ulcers, boils, warts, and cancerous tumors. The seeds gently expel worms.
The latex has a similar but more violent effect. The flowers may be taken in an infusion to induce menstruation. A decoction of the ripe fruit is helpful for treating persistent diarrhea and dysentery in children. The ripe fruit is mildly laxative.
The leaves are used to dress wounds.
HABITAT AND CULTIVATION
Native to tropical America, papaya is now cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world.
Papaya fruit contains proteolytic enzymes (papain and chymopapain) and traces of an alkaloid, carpaine. Papain, found in the milky white latex that flows from incisions in the unripe fruit, is a protein-dissolving enzyme that aids digestion.
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