One of the oldest cultivated fruits, pomegranates first grew in ancient Persia and the health benefits of the pomegranate were recognized even then. The Romans gave it its name – “pomegranate” literally means “seed apple” in Latin – and planted the sturdy seedlings throughout their empire. Spain so loved pomegranates that they named the city of Granada after them, according to some historians. The fruit also made its way eastward to India, where its juice was considered a health elixir that cured any number of ills. As modern researchers discover more about the importance of antioxidants to good health, it’s beginning to look as though the Ayurvedic specialists of centuries ago were right about pomegranates.
The round red fruit has a symbolic history as rich as its geographic history. Its profusion of seeds linked pomegranate fruit with fertility, while the long-lived trees became associated with rebirth and renewal. Garnets, the rich red gemstone prized throughout the ancient world, took their name from their resemblance to pomegranate seeds. Pomegranates have been the subject of poetry and allegorical tales from Greek mythology to the book of Exodus. Paintings and frescoes depict legendary heroes, gods and goddesses dining on pomegranates.
However poetic they may be, there is also practical value due to the health benefits of pomegranate. Nutritionally speaking, pomegranates compare favorably to many more familiar fruits. They contain no fat, low sugar and only 80 calories per 100-gram serving, yet they offer 5 grams of fiber and 15 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.
Pomegranate juice is almost as popular as whole fruits. Because it’s more concentrated, pomegranate juice is slightly higher in calories than whole seeds at 120 calories per 8-ounce serving. Like whole pomegranates, pomegranate juice is rich in antioxidants. This nutrition information applies to pomegranate juice, not to the sweetened mixture of juice and simple syrup called grenadine.
Going beyond the label reveals the full extent of the health benefits of pomegranate.
Pomegranates and Antioxidants
Pomegranates’ deep red color delivers more than just plate appeal; that garnet hue signifies the fruit’s rich supply of antioxidant phytochemicals. Antioxidants counteract cellular damage due to free radicals. While researchers are still studying the effects of antioxidants within the human body and haven’t yet concluded that these compounds work the same in people as they do in a test tube, the National Cancer Society asserts that within the testing they’ve done so far, “antioxidants help prevent the free radical damage that is associated with cancer.” It’s impossible to talk of curing disease with antioxidants, but it’s clear that foods with antioxidants appear to be sensible preventive medicine.
Plenty of foods have antioxidants, but only pomegranates have a related set of compounds called punicalagins. That tongue-twister of a name has its roots in the scientific name for pomegranates, Punica granatum. Punicalagins have the same capacity to neutralize free radicals as other antioxidants, but preliminary studies suggest that these substances also actively seek out free radicals and may have an effect in reducing the chance of prostate cancer, lung cancer and breast cancer.
Pomegranate juice has an antioxidizing capacity of 2,860 units per 100 grams. That compares favorably to prune juice, goji berries and melon juice. If research bears out the distinction between punicalagins and other antioxidants, then consuming both could have an even bigger buffering effect on free radicals.
Vitamins, Minerals and Micronutrients in Pomegranates
Like many fruits, pomegranate supplies a healthy dose of vitamin C. Unlike others, it also contains vitamins B5, B9 and K. Potassium and zinc top the list of vital minerals that pomegranates and pomegranate juice contain.
Better known by its full name, pantothenic acid, vitamin B5 is essential to healthy skin and nerve function. The name might be more familiar as a hair-care ingredient, but pantothenic acid is also an important dietary requirement. Research into the importance of pantothenic acid is ongoing, but this micronutrient may help prevent muscle cramping, insulin resistance and adrenal insufficiency.
Vitamin B9, also known as folate or folic acid, took on greater significance in the world of nutritional science when researchers found that folic acid deficiency contributed to neural tube defects in babies. Adults also need this vitamin to repair DNA and create healthy blood cells. A single serving of pomegranate seeds contains 10 percent of an adult’s recommended allowance of the vitamin.
People who don’t get enough vitamin K may bruise easily and run a greater risk of developing osteoporosis. Usually found in dark green leafy vegetables, vitamin K becomes more palatable when it’s packaged in sweet pomegranate seeds. Pomegranate juice and whole pomegranate seeds contain about 10 percent of an adult’s recommended daily allowance of vitamin K.
Allergies and Contraindications
While pomegranate allergies are rare, anyone who notices itching or burning of the skin after handling pomegranates should avoid these fruits. The mild acidity of pomegranate juice could exacerbate GERD or heartburn symptoms; if heartburn is a common occurrence, try cutting down on acidic foods including pomegranates shortly before bedtime.
The seeds in pomegranates may cause irritation for people with diverticulitis. Like tomato, strawberry and raspberry seeds, pips in pomegranate seeds can get into the diverticuli of the bowel and cause pain. For other people, the relatively large seeds of the fruit cause no trouble at all.
People on certain blood thinners must be careful of their vitamin K intake. Because the vitamin prohibits clotting, too much of it combined with medications could cause an interaction between the two. Account for the vitamin K in pomegranate seeds and juice to ensure that the food doesn’t interact with medications and the pomegranate health benefits can be enjoyed safely.
Selecting, Cooking and Eating Pomegranates
Pick a pomegranate that has a bright red color and feels heavy for its size to get the best-tasting fruit. Pomegranates are in season throughout the fall, so buying them in season ensures a better product.
Most fruits consist of sweet flesh wrapped around inedible seeds. Pomegranates reverse that familiar formula; they’re full of translucent juicy seeds surrounded by a fibrous white pith. Separate the delicious seeds from the pith with a sharp rap from the back of a spoon against the back of a pomegranate half. The seeds should shower down from the pith and into the bowl with a few taps from the spoon.
Pomegranate seeds closely resemble the garnets to which they lent their name. Their vivid color and translucency make them a beautiful garnish to ice cream dishes and desserts. Try them in salads, too, where their bursts of tangy juice add a new dimension of taste and texture. Use pomegranate juice anywhere that other fruit juices would go: in glazes and sauces, with mixed fruit drinks and as a frozen treat.
However you decide to use them, whether you learn how to juice pomegranate or use it in salads or desserts, it is easy to start exploring the health benefits of pomegranate fruit.
Jeff Andrews writes about the many common foods that are beneficial to your health.