Papain: Nature's Own Digestive
by Elizabeth A. Peterson, MFA
The papaya (also called papaw, pawpaw, mamao, or tree melon) is believed to have
originated in southern Mexico, Central America, or the West Indies, but is now
grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is a pear-shaped
fruit with skin that turns from green to a bright orange-yellow as it ripens. It
is also the source of one of nature's own digestive aids: papain.
What is Papain?
Papain is a milky latex that is collected by making incisions in unripe papayas.
It is one of a group of proteolytic enzymes found in papayas, pineapples, and
certain other plants. Proteolytic enzymes help you digest the proteins in food.
Papaya and pineapple are two of the richest plant sources of proteolytic
Where Does Papain Come From?
Papain comes from the papaya, a tropical fruit that is about 6 inches long and
can range from 1-20 pounds in weight, depending on the variety. Inside, the
papaya has silky smooth, orange-yellow flesh and a large center cavity full of
shiny grayish-black seeds. The flesh is juicy and has a subtle, sweet-tart or
musky taste, somewhat like a cantaloupe.
Papaya is now widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries. There are
about 45 species of papaya. The most common variety in the United States is the
Solo papaya, which is grown in Hawaii and Florida. Mexican papayas are much
larger than the Hawaiian types and may be more than 15 inches long.
To extract papain latex from a papaya, the skin of an unripe papaya is cut.
After the latex is collected, it is dried either by the sun or in ovens and sold
in powdered form.
What is Papain Used For?
The primary use of papain is as a meat tenderizer. It is also used as a
digestive aid for people who have trouble digesting proteins.
Evidence suggests that papain may also help reduce inflammation and pain. For
example, several studies suggest that papain and other proteolytic enzymes may
improve the rate of recovery from various types of injuries, and reduce the
chronic pain and discomfort of conditions such as neck pain, back pain, shoulder
pain, and osteoarthritis. Proteolytic enzymes have also been evaluated as an aid
to recovery from surgery, with mixed results.
Two other studies suggest that proteolytic enzymes might be helpful for the
treatment of the painful condition known as shingles (herpes zoster).
Many practitioners of alternative medicine believe that papain may be helpful
for food allergies and autoimmune diseases. However, there is little to no
scientific evidence as yet supporting that papain actually works for these
Some Precautions to Consider
Although in clinical studies, papain and other proteolytic enzymes are believed
to be quite safe, they may occasionally cause digestive upset and allergic
If you are taking warfarin, aspirin, or other drugs that thin the blood, you
should not take proteolytic enzymes without first discussing it with your
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting
any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical