Ohio’s Strange Fruit – Science Cafe Fall 2020

By Morgan Spehar

The Pawpaw Festival may have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus, but Ohio University’s Science Cafe series continued on Sept. 16 with food scientist Rob Brannon, who gave a virtual presentation on one of the most unusual fruits in Ohio: the pawpaw.

Nicknamed the Appalachian apple, the Hoosier banana or any one of dozens of other monikers, the American pawpaw has long had a reputation as an unusual fruit. Those who taste it often describe the flavor as a mixture of mango, pineapple and banana. 

Brannon, who holds a doctorate in food science and is currently a professor in Ohio University’s Division of Food and Nutrition Sciences, has intensely studied the flavor and other properties of the pawpaw. For one study in 2006, he put together a descriptive sensory panel of expert tasters, who profiled the fruit’s flavor.

“Obviously sweet, sour and bitter are the basic tastes,” he said when describing what the panel found, “Banana, mango, melon…you get this tropical papaya [flavor], a citrusy or rindy flavor, and astringent.”

The panel also rated the intensity of each of the flavors of pawpaw and found that sweet, banana, mango and bitter were the most intense. 

But not all pawpaws are created equal. According to Brannon, there are over 80 varieties of pawpaw, creating a broad spectrum of sizes, colors and tastes. 

Some varieties of pawpaw are better for eating than others, and different products often need a particular type of pawpaw to achieve a specific flavor. Pawpaw beer, for example, is usually made with a different type than pawpaw ice cream (which you can find a recipe for here).

Cooking food with the fruit can be difficult, however, because the pawpaw can become more concentrated when it is cooked. This high concentration can cause gastrointestinal problems and intense vomiting. Even eating raw pawpaw is sometimes enough to upset those with sensitive stomachs. But despite some potentially nauseating side effects, eating pawpaw in small doses can have some health benefits.

The leaves of a pawpaw tree, photograph by Morgan Spehar

The pawpaw is considered by some, including Brannon, to be a superfruit. Lacking a cape or a catchy theme song, superfruits are defined as fruits with high amounts of antioxidants. 

“Blueberry, pomegranate, cranberry…these are the ones that we typically think of as high in antioxidants,” he said. “[Pawpaws] are never quite as high as that, but they’re rock solid, they’re right there in the game. They have good quality antioxidants in quite a good quantity. So, overall, a really good fruit.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, antioxidants are important because they protect you from free radicals, “which may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases.” But being high in antioxidants isn’t the only health benefit that pawpaws offer. 

Brannon is currently conducting a study to update the nutrition information of the pawpaw. The current USDA nutrition information includes the skin along with the pulp, and because the skin of the fruit is often high in nutrients, the pawpaw’s health benefits are actually overreported. 

Despite this, pawpaws are still considered to be very good for you. Brannon described them as nutritionally similar to a banana.

“And that’s really not a bad place to be,” he said. 

Check out Brannon’s full Science Cafe talk here

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