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Ohio Scholar Studies Pawpaw Fruit For Future Food Products

  September in Ohio brings not only cooler temperatures, but the ripening of a special fruit called the pawpaw.  It's North America's largest native tree fruit. 

Ohio University scientist, Rob Brannan studies the pawpaw and how it may be widely marketed one day.

The below transcript is an automated transcript of the conversation, please excuse any and all minor errors or typos.

Debbie Holmes: Well thanks for joining me this morning, Rob. And I understand the paw paw comes from the largest edible fruit trees here, native to North America?

Rob Brannan: That's what they say, it does go on a tree and it grows in clusters and you know, the big ones are about the size of your fist so it's a big fruit tree.

DH: And let's find out exactly what the paw paw is. Describe it, it's a fruit.

RB: It's a tropical fruit so every other fruit in the paw paw's family, the botanical family, is a tropical fruit grows in the tropics meaning warm weather. But the paw paw grows here in the Midwest where we have winter, it's called a temperate climate, so it actually tastes like a paw paw fruit when we, when you eat the pulp and we asked people what it tastes like, we get descriptors like it taste like a combination of a banana and a mango.

That's what we hear over and over again as a combination of a banana and a mango. And then depending on the variety you can get other things in there sometimes it's described as being citrusy other times it's described as having pineapple flavors. There's even a variety that has a little coconuty, but the baseline is that it taste like a banana and a mango.

DH: So you said that it's it's actually a tropical fruit so...

RB: That's right.

DH: How that end up here then in Ohio and other northern states?

RB: You know I wish I could answer that question and I think there's some theories but I I've never really got an answer to that question it obviously, the seeds, were transported here somehow and it became adapted to temperate climate.

DH: And early settlers also ate the fruit quite frequently?

RB: Well, I don't know if you could go as far as to call it a staple but I think that it was certainly it's it's been written about since since about the 1500's when the explorers came up the the Mississippi River. So yeah, I mean because it's a big fruit when you see it. It comes in in September, so they weren't eating it year round if they were here in September when the fruit came in, then they probably were eating it.

DH: So it's ripe right now? 

RB: It's ripe right now.

DH: And so how long then will it be good then to eat.

RB: Well if you pick them off the tree and you don't do anything when they're ripe, when you pick them off the tree, you only really have a couple of days, that's one of the issues with trying to create an industry around the paw paw is that they go bad really fast.

DH: And are you studying then the nutritional benefits of the paw paw? 

RB: It's really an unremarkable thing to say that a fruit has antioxidants, they all do, but there's different kinds and they have different effectiveness that given this in the body and so part of the work that I've done is to characterize the antioxidant content of the paw paw.

DH: And so what have you found them through your research?

RB: So antioxidants are a very very complicated subject but they've been subdivided into these categories and so what we have in the paw paw are similar to the antioxidants that what we've find in chocolate or red wine these kinds of antioxidants.

So they're kind of, they're sort of the rock-star antioxidants in a sense that the people that are promoting dark chocolate and red wine and cranberries, are very similar to that.

So that's kind of good news for the paw paw.

DH: It sounds then that there would be like a large market then for this fruit?

RB: The market is going to be dependent on a lot of other things they certainly have a pretty strong antioxidant profile.

DH: So how can people who would like to taste a paw paw get access to one?

RB: If you go tromping through the woods you can look for them, if you know what they are, to buy a paw paw there's only one company that I know of it's in Albany, Ohio called Integration Acres. They show up at farmers markets and things like that.

DH: All right well thanks so much for joining us this morning. I've been talking with Ohio University food scientists Rob Brannan about the paw paw fruit and thanks for joining us.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.