The papaya fruit is native to the lush tropical region stretching from southern Mexico to Panama and spread into the wild in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. The distinctive fragrance of papaya wafts through the greenmarkets here in Havana, Cuba, where I am researching and writing about food. Papaya is an important crop on the island and has benefited from environmentally friendly farming practices such as composting, which enhances soil fertility and moisture—two things papayas love.
Domesticated by the Maya or Incas, scholars believe, papaya was later spread to tropical zones around the world. In a dramatic example of how this occurred, papaya was brought by the Spanish from Acapulco in Mexico across the Pacific Ocean on its lucrative trade route to the Philippines. Spanish galleons going off course may have also brought the papaya to the Hawaiian islands. Now Hawaii has over 300 papaya farms.
In the wild, papaya fruit was small and seedy but through cultivation and selection for larger fruit, papaya has grown. Now, the small variety (also known as Hawaiian papaya) produces fruit up to about 2 pounds while the large variety (or Mexican papaya) produces fruit that tops the scales at 10 pounds! Papayas are grown in 60 countries with Asia, South America, and Africa accounting for the top-producing regions. Mexico is the leading exporter of papaya, while the United States is the largest importer.
Modern research has confirmed the phytonutrients in papaya as antifungal, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antihypertensive, and wound healing. And that's just for starters; here's what the research says about papaya and our health: