Papayas are colorful, brightly flavored tropical fruits that have their origin in southern Mexico and Central America. No matter where you live, they can be a delicious, healthy and exotic addition to your regular intake of fruit, from adding it to your smoothies or salads to simply eating it cubed with lime juice or honey.

Because papayas are not as common or familiar as fruits like apples or bananas, you might not know exactly how a papaya should look, how it should taste and whether it is perfectly ripe to eat. Also, because papayas are often shipped in from far-away, warmer climates, the papayas you see in the grocery store may be underripe, overripe, damaged or suffering from fungus or mold. Learn how to tell if a papaya is bad, how to cut a papaya and the best way to consume a papaya.

What's a Papaya?

Hefty, plump and oblong, the average papaya fruit is an average of 7 inches long (though it can be up to 20 inches long) and weighs about a pound. While there are several varieties of papaya, the one you'll likely see in your grocery store is the red papaya, which has juicy, melon-like pink/orange flesh and a sweet, slightly musky taste.

Also like melons, papayas have a center filled with seeds. Unlike melons, the seeds are black with a gelatinous outer casing and are edible, though their bitter, peppery taste means that they are often discarded.

How to Tell if a Papaya Is Ripe

Unripe papayas are solidly green in color and very firm to the touch. As they ripen, they will turn yellow, sometimes with a slightly pink hue, and the fruit will soften so that it gives slightly under pressure.

An overripe papaya will be all yellow, deep orange and then brown. Its skin will easily collapse under pressure, and it may suffer from bruising, rotten spots and shriveling.

An unripe papaya will have no smell, while a ripe papaya will smell slightly sweet. An overripe papaya will have a too-sweet smell and then a rotten smell. It may be easier to smell the ripeness of a papaya by holding its stem to your nose.

How to Cut a Papaya

The best way to tell if your papaya is ripe and edible is to cut it open to inspect its flesh and smell.

First, cut off the stem. Then, slice the fruit open lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and either discard them or reserve them for another recipe. From here, you can either scoop out the flesh with a spoon, or you can cut off the skin layer with a knife (much like you would a cantaloupe) and then slice and dice the remaining fruit as you wish.

Papaya flesh is delicate when ripe, so handle your fruit gingerly both while transporting it and while preparing it to eat in order to avoid bruising.

Why Does My Papaya Smell Bad?

Papayas aren't for everyone. They have a sweet, musky odor that makes it a unique, complex fruit with a tropical, exotic taste. It's beloved in many cultures for its one-of-a-kind, strong flavor, but it's also not as mainstream as, say, oranges because its taste isn't always a crowd pleaser, especially if you didn't grow up eating them.

So, what happens if you cut open a papaya and it smells bad (some people even say they smell like vomit)? Well, if the smell isn't overpowering but only sweet and musky, it's likely ripe and ready to eat. However, if the musk is overwhelming and sharp, you might have an overripe papaya on your hands that won't be very enjoyable to consume. Of course, it could just be that you don't like the taste of papaya.

Shelf Life of a Papaya

The shelf life of a papaya depends on a number of different factors, including their variety, when they are picked, how they were transported and how they are stored. However, you can still make some generalizations about how long a papaya will be edible after you buy it.

A whole, uncut papaya that is green/unripe when you purchase it will last an estimated four to six days if you keep it in a cool, dry place at room temperature, such as your kitchen countertop. It will last six to nine days before becoming overripe if you store it in the crisper in your refrigerator.

Once you cut a papaya open, it will keep for just a few hours at room temperature before turning mushy and unappealing. However, a cut papaya stored in a closed container in the fridge will stay good for two or three days.

Mold on Papaya: Can You Still Eat It?

You should use your own discretion when deciding whether or not to eat a papaya that has spots of mold on its skin. If the moldy areas are easily removable, and the rest of the fruit's flesh is firm, bright orange and smells sweet, the remaining fruit is very likely fine to eat. If the moldy areas permeate the fruit, and the rest of the papaya is soft, discolored or smells fermented, it's better to toss the fruit.

What About White Spots Inside the Papaya?

White spots inside a papaya are likely mold growing on the fruit and not the skin of the fruit. This usually begins in the stem area and spreads. In some cases, you can cut off the area of the papaya that is affected as long as the rest of the flesh is firm, healthy and sweet smelling, but if you want to be on the safe side, you may want to head back to the store for a healthy fruit.

What Happens if I Eat a Bad Papaya?

If you do happen to eat some moldy papaya, don't worry. The vast majority of people who eat mold on papaya have no symptoms (though moldy fruit doesn't taste good). A small number of people may have an adverse reaction to moldy fruit. If you have ongoing symptoms such as a rash or stomach pain, go see a doctor.

If you have already cut the papaya open and sliced the fruit, and the fruit itself becomes moldy, don't take any chances, and throw it away. Mold on papaya is not going to taste good, and there's a chance it could cause health issues and make you feel ill.

What About Papaya Fungus?

During rainy or wet periods, papaya trees may become infected by Asperisporium caricae, a type of fungus. In these cases, the papaya tree leaves as well as the fruit itself may become infected with black spots of fungus.

A papaya infected with fungus is easy to spot: its skin is covered with black spots. You can easily remove the papaya fungus by peeling off the skin, and the fruit itself is safe to eat. However, the vast majority of papayas infected with this fungus are not shipped or sold. You'll be more likely to encounter this problem if you're eating a papaya locally or if you have a papaya tree.

Health Benefits of Papaya

If your papaya is ripe and free of mold and fungus, it's a great addition to your diet and is absolutely good for your health. An excellent source of Vitamin C and anti-oxidants, papaya can help boost your immune system, fight inflammation and protect you from diseases like cancer and heart disease. One study found that eating papaya lowered the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Papaya is also high in fiber like many other fruits. This means that eating papaya can aid in digestion and weight loss while fighting against colon cancer.

About the Author

Sarah Aswell

Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer living in Montana.