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What is Papain?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Papain is an enzyme which is found naturally in unripe papayas. This enzyme has a number of interesting uses, and it appears in a variety of settings. People have been taking advantage of its properties for centuries in Latin America, and additional uses have been discovered in the modern era with research on the enzyme and its properties.

The oldest historic use of papain is as a meat tenderizer. The enzyme helps to break down the tough bands between fibers in muscle tissue, making tough meats fall apart during the cooking process. Wrapping foods in leaves may be a stereotypical activity in fictionalizations of tropical life, but it has a sound basis in science, as green leaves can contain papain, which will soften the meat as it cooks while preserving moisture and preventing burning.

Historically, people harvested this enzyme by slashing the skin of unripe papayas and collecting the resulting sticky, latex-like sap which collected. People could also cook with upripe papayas, relying on the green papaya to break up in the cooking process and release the enzyme, or certain leaves could be added to a recipe to soften the meat.

Commercially, papain is added to many preparations which are designed to tenderize meats. It is also used in the preparation of cell cultures, as it can dissolve the bonds between cells to make them easier to separate. Medically, this substance is sometimes used in wound debridement and other procedures, and it is sometimes recommended as a dietary supplement to people who experience digestive problems. The supplement can help people break foods down so that they are easy to digest.

There are some precautions which must be observed when working with this enzyme. Some people develop an allergy to this enzyme, and they can experience severe health problems if they are exposed to it. Papain allergies can also be closely related to latex allergies, and people with sensitivity to one may develop a sensitivity to the other. Pineapples, kiwis, and cashews can also be related to a papaya allergy, as the enzymes in these foods are similar to papain.

People who are sensitive to papayas should avoid products like meat tenderizers made with papain, as they may experience allergic reactions. If allergies are experienced generically after eating tropical fruits such as the examples listed above, it can be a good idea to receive allergy testing to narrow down the cause to a specific culprit.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon975040 — On Oct 23, 2014

I'm doing a science lab experiment. Is there a way to extract the papain?

By anon326687 — On Mar 23, 2013

I drink shakeology and it is one of the main ingredients.

By anon321527 — On Feb 22, 2013

If papain is used to tenderize meat, might it also tenderize your esophagus, your stomach, and your intestines?

By donasmrs — On Nov 13, 2012

I heard that papain enzymes are good for inflammation and papain supplements can be used in place of anti-inflammatory medications. Is this true? Has anyone used it this way?

By ZipLine — On Nov 13, 2012

@fBoyle-- Yea, a lot of beauty salons use papain powder in their masks and treatments to remove dead skin. But be careful with it and don't use it too often because it can irritate your skin.

Papain is a powerful enzyme so if you use it too often, it might remove dead skin faster than your skin can produce new skin cells. The result will be irritated, red, sensitive skin. Some people also develop flakes because of it.

I do think that papain is a valuable ingredient in skin care. But it's probably best to leave treatments with papain in them to professionals to decide how and how often to use it.

By fBoyle — On Nov 12, 2012

@TunaLine-- Oh is that why there is papain in my face mask as well?

I have this exfoliating face mask that I use once a week and I noticed that it has papaya papain in it. I didn't understand why a papaya enzyme was in there but now I get it. I guess it exfoliates by removing dead skin cells. No wonder my face has been looking a lot brighter and more even since I started using this mask.

By anon252427 — On Mar 05, 2012

Papain products have been taken off the market in the US for wound care. I'm not sure why.

By anon244835 — On Feb 03, 2012

This was a really helpful article. It just made me understand more about papain. I'm actually doing a science project about papain and was searching for some help.

By anon130979 — On Nov 30, 2010

Traditionally in East Africa, when we cook rich meat dishes (e.g. meat biryani) green raw papaya (pawpaw)is grated and added to the meat (plus spices) overnight to help tenderise the meat. Then the food is cooked the next morning, and for sure, it is guaranteed that the meat is soft and tender and very tasty too!

By EarlyForest — On Jul 29, 2010

Has anybody actually used papain meat tenderizer? Does it have any effect on the taste of the meat?

By TunaLine — On Jul 29, 2010

Papain is also used in combination with urea in the debridement of wounds.

Since both papain and urea are proteolytic, they combine well to break down the dead tissue in wounds.

By CopperPipe — On Jul 29, 2010

Papain powder also comes in supplement form. A lot of people like to use it after meals that are heavy in meat.

Many of the papain tablets in fact contain a combination of papain and bromelain, a similar enzyme found in pineapples.

Of course, before taking a papain supplement, it is important to run it by your doctor just to be safe.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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