The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Get Your Red On

Get Your Red On

Dietitian Dialogues

June 26, 2011

A red dress, red lipstick, red shoes… they all get noticed. Red is a rich, vibrant color that conveys an energetic vibe, and it’s no different with red-hued foods. All fresh produce provides a myriad of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, but the nutritional ante is upped when it comes to foods such as tomato and tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, apricots, red peppers and papaya, especially Caribbean Red papaya.

What makes these fruits so vibrantly colored are natural occurring yellow, orange and red pigments called carotenoids. Primary dietary carotenoids include lutein, beta-carotene, lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin, all of which act as anti-oxidants in the body. As antioxidants, they tamper down inflammation and can be effective as cancer fighting agents. Results from a variety of epidemiological studies indicate that a high intake of lycopene-rich foods can reduce the risk of several types of cancers, most notably prostrate cancer. 

A study reported in the Journal of Agricultural Food & Chemistry (2000, 48 (5) pp 1697-1702) showed a positive correlation between the ripening of tomatoes (and resulting deeper red pigment) and higher lycopene content. Because tomatoes and tomato-based products are the primary source of lycopene in the American diet, most of this research has been done with tomatoes. But one could extrapolate this premise and consider that a deeper, Caribbean Red papaya will have a higher lycopene content than a more traditional, pale-colored papaya. While all papayas are a terrific source of vitamin C, folate, potassium and the digestive enzyme, papain, it’s the lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin that sets papayas apart from other fruits.

Currently, there is no recommended daily guideline for lycopene intake, but by eating a variety of foods from this color palette, one can be assured of increasing their lycopene intake. Lycopene will differ from papaya variety to variety, but it’s interesting to note that the smaller papayas, typically known as Solos from Hawaii, do not content lycopene. 

When it comes to cryptozanthin, papayas move to the top of the list. What makes cryptozanthin interesting is that it doesn’t pass through the gastrointestinal tract when digested but gets directly absorbed into the bloodstream where it can be measured. Why should this matter? Because one of the duties of cryptozanthin is to inhibit new blood vessel formation also known as angiogenesis. If developing cancer cells are denied a blood vessel lifeline then they have a limited existence. The thinking is that by eating cryptozanthin-rich foods, such as papaya, perhaps one can nip cancer cells in the bud.

Because Caribbean Red papayas are available year round in mainstream supermarkets, they’re an accessible choice for maintaining a nutrient-dense and cancer-fighting diet. And because papayas can be fairly hefty in size, it makes them an ideal fruit for freezing and knowing that you’ll always have some on hand.

Retailer Merchandising Tips
Take advantage of the Caribbean Red’s brilliant color by cutting it in half and merchandising with sliced lime. Or, fill up the seed cavity with blueberries, strawberries or other diced fruit. These presentations suggest to customers they can eat it like a melon as a healthy breakfast or on-the-go snack. 

A sprinkle of lime keeps the color vibrant and a black foam tray, instead of white, makes for a more impactful color contrast.

Papayas should be merchandised with their “neck” inside and carefully stacked as their skin is soft. For that reason, do not place directly on wicker or other textured surface and do not mist. To slow down the ripening process, store papayas below 56 degrees F. Papayas are ethylene sensitive. Position the fruit in your produce section with this in mind.

Signage that informs customers about how to select the sweetest tasting papaya is also helpful. Caribbean Red papayas are ready to eat when the fruit gives a little when squeezed. In fact, these papayas can be ripe starting at 50% yellow.

When the papaya is at its cosmetic best – approximately from green to 90% yellow – it’s perfect for merchandising whole. Papayas after their cosmetic prime are still delicious. Consider cutting them in half  for ready-to-eat packaging or diced for fruit salads. Papaya smoothies are favorites at in-store smoothie bars. Any salad bar with fruit should include papaya, with a small sign inviting a tasting which will eventually build sales in the produce aisle. To further build interest, create a salsa display with bins of potential salsa ingredients: limes, papayas, Slimado avocados, tomatoes, mangoes and Uniq Fruit to name a few. Have a few prepared salsas available for tasting.


Donna Shields, MS, RD, LD, blends the art of culinary with the science of nutrition in her work with food companies, commodity boards and wellness programs. She’s a former faculty member of the Culinary Institute of America, cookbook author, recipe developer, radio show host and has served as nutrition spokesperson for countless healthy product launches. Based in Florida, she pens a monthly blog for Brooks Tropicals and creates vacation programs for Key West Wellness Retreats.

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at