When it comes to plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, each one of them contains abundant unique and beneficial properties for our health, healing and prevention. Although it has been used for thousands of years, in recent years the popularity of the pomegranate fruit has been greatly amplified. In this essay I will share with you about the pomegranate’s history, health and nutrition benefits, preparation and uses.
The popularity of the pomegranate fruit has been on a steady increase, especially during the past decade. Just in 2013 for example, the Peruvian pomegranate market rose 27.5%. It seems the entire world has become more interested in this fruit and its consumption, not just North America. In France alone imports of Peruvian pomegranate rose by 757.6% in 2012.
But what is owed to the fervent popularization of this fruit? After all the fruit has been used for thousands of years by many ancient cultures and has been used extensively in Ayurveda. Its valuable healing properties were known to humans for millennia. So when it comes to our modern day science, it appears that as it expanded its advanced testing of food, especially the nutrient group known as phytochemicals (phytonutrients), the pomegranate became one of the main focal points based on the discoveries made with respect to its health potential.
As we discovered through modern science, the pomegranate has numerous therapeutic uses. Some have now been readily linked to having a positive effect on various health conditions, others have yet to be discovered. Its main claim to fame is its powerful anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. As shared in a review paper on the therapeutic applications of pomegranate, it appears to have beneficial effects for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dental conditions, erectile dysfunction, bacterial infections, antibiotic resistance, and ultraviolet radiation-induced skin damage. Some of this is thanks to its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. Other potential benefits include infant brain ischemia, male infertility, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and obesity.
About the Pomegranate
The pomegranate is native to the Middle East, most notably Iran, and various parts of Asia. Today it is widely cultivated in many parts of the world. It has been used by numerous cultures, and played a key role in Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Folk Medicine. Many cultures considered it the symbol of fertility.
The pomegranate plant is actually a multi-stemmed shrub or large tree (20-30 feet high). The tree produces deciduous leaves and flowers, from which the fruits are formed. The fruit is roughly spherical and varies in size, most typically from a small to large handful. Its color includes various shades of deep pinks and reds. The fruit is encased by a tough, leathery coat (or peel). Inside one will find the bright red edible fruit parts with seeds, commonly called arils. The arils are divided by thin membraneous walls, as well as thicker spongy parts that are part of the pericarp. The interior walls and seeds have a resemblance to a honeycomb structure.
All parts of the fruit (inner and outer) have nutritive and therapeutic value, though not all parts are readily palatable. The most commonly used part are the arils, which include the seeds. Some of the creamy-white membraneous pericarp is at times consumed, whether by choice, or chance during preparation. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective the bright red color of pomegranates is associated with the heart and blood, thereby having positive, strengthening effects on both. The outer rind has been commonly used in Ayurveda for helping with a variety of ailments, including diarrhea and some skin conditions.
Roughly 1 cup of arils is equivalent to about 144 calories. The majority of the pomegranate is composed of carbohydrates—about 32g for 1 cup of arils. Of this about 24g come from sugars, and about 6g come from fiber.
There is about 3g of protein per 1 cup of arils. This equates to about 8% of protein of the pomegranate’s total calories.
There is also about 2g of fat per 1 cup of arils. This equates to about 12.5% of fat of the pomegranate’s total calories, and like all plant foods it is naturally free of cholesterol. The richest sources of fatty acids found in the pomegranate are in the actual seeds, or the seed oil. These fatty acids include linoleic (omega-6), oleic, palmitic, palmitoleic, stearic and arachidic.
*Nutrition info source NutritionData.Self.com
The pomegranate is rich in vitamins C and K, but it also contains some of most of the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), vitamin E, as well as folate.
In terms of minerals, the pomegranate is very rich in potassium, with 1 cup of arils yielding over 400mg of potassium. It also contains some copper, magnesium, manganese, calcium, iron, zinc and phosphorus.
Remember that the nutritional quality will vary by region (type of soil grown in), freshness, as well as whether the pomegranate is organic or not.
*Nutrition info source NutritionData.Self.com
Phytonutrients (or phytochemicals) are plant compounds that possess a plethora of benefits for human health, but are not considered essential. Pomegranates contain over 100 different phytonutrients. They are a rich source of polyphenols, which make up the majority of their phytonutrient composition. These are credited for the flavor and color in many plants, as well as their role as antioxidants. Pomegranate polyphenols include flavonoids (flavanols, flavonols, isoflavones and anthocyanins), as well as various tannins. Each of these groups of phytonutrients have been studied in various foods and found to have powerful healing and prevention properties.
Specifically, pomegranates have been found to contain phytonutrients like ellagic acid, caffeic acid, luteolin, and punicic acid. These four have been associated with cancer prevention, especially prostate cancer prevention. The National Cancer Institute has its own page to outline the various studies done on pomegranates and their potential for our health.
Many of the above mentioned bioactive compounds have been found to possess not just antioxidant, but also antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal activity. This is highly beneficial for being supportive, healing and preventative when it comes to our immune system, cardiovascular health, and cancer (as mentioned above), as well as our overall health in general.
Fruit, Juice or Supplement?
There are 3 main ways that pomegranate can be enjoyed for its taste and flavor, as well as its health benefits. These include consuming the whole, fresh fruit, or its juice, or a supplement. We will examine each of these below to see what the best option is for us.
Over the past few years, especially as studies came out about pomegranate juice and its various benefits, the popularity of pomegranate juice rose sharply. But is this the best way to consume this fruit and enjoy its many benefits?
When it comes to juicing, home juicing of fresh produce (fruits, vegetables and herbs) can have many positive health benefits. It provides a fresh, concentrated amount of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. However the same does not necessarily hold true for commercial, pasteurized juices. They lack in various areas of quality and nutritional integrity. So right off the bat, unless we are going to juice our own pomegranate, which is very possible, we cannot expect a commercially processed food product to be optimal in quality for maximum benefits. Remember, many bio-active compounds are very heat sensitive and can be destroyed during the pasteurization process. Secondly, any product that sits in fabricated materials for long periods of time degrades in various ways when it comes to its nutritive quality.
Having said the above, this does not mean that commercially prepared pomegranate juices are completely worthless. It all depends on the company—their values and ethics, their processing methods, and our personal health needs. But as consumers we must stay conscious and discerning at all times for we rarely realize, unless we research deeper, how deceptive many health claims on food products are today. For example, POM Wonderful, which is perhaps the leader in pomegranate juice in North America, tries to emphasize its commitment to producing a quality product, such as using flash pasteurization to minimize nutrient loss. However before we get bedazzled by the right marketing claims, let’s understand that the juice comes from concentrate, comes in a plastic bottle and provides 31g of sugar per 8oz (less than 1 cup serving). If on the other hand you eat 1 cup of fresh, whole pomegranate fruit, you will only get 24g of sugar, ALONG with the fiber and other whole food, synergistic benefits. On top of this, many of the reputably sounding positive scientific findings about pomegranate juice are funded by the very company trying to sell it, as is the case of POM Wonderful. This creates an artificial bias within the scientific community that can be confusing and deceptive to the consumer.
So in the end, if you are going to choose a commercial pomegranate juice be sure to read the ingredients. A high quality juice should:
- not be from concentrate
- not have any additives (sugar, flavors, colors)
- not be a mixture of juices (apple juice is often used as a cheap filler)
- be flash pasteurized at worst
- not be labelled as any kind of “cocktail” or “punch”
- come in a glass bottle
Likewise, the supplement industry was quick to seize the opportunity of the growing pomegranate popularity. But is this the best way to maximize the fruit’s health benefits?
Pomegranate extract is typically available in pill, capsule, or powder form. As any other supplement niche, and due to our strong attraction to unnatural convenience today, the pomegranate supplement market continues to attract many consumers. It seems easier to take a pill, than eat a whole, fresh fruit. However as we know today thanks to many experts and fields of study, isolated nutrients do not have the same potential as their whole food counterparts. Nature is too intelligent in how it has constructed its form and function. Thus, if we are really interested in optimal health, we must release the idea that this or that pill will create our health or healing.
The synergistic action of the pomegranate constituents appears to be superior to that of single constituents.
Therefore although there can be some benefit from taking a pomegranate extract, this is highly dependent on many factors. Each interested party should really do some research into this area and weigh the various pros and cons for themselves, rather than being blindly led by clever marketing claims. I always encourage any interested person to first focus on working with their diet. Make nutritional excellence your priority as this will always have the most profound and positive impacts on your health, healing and prevention. I know that we are always hoping for a quick fix, but it just does not work that way. Start by focusing on eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, which alone is healing and protective against cancer and heart disease, not to name all of the other, numerous benefits that it provides. And then, IF, you feel that a supplement of this or any kind would be of value for you, then perhaps consider that as you see fit with the aid of your natural health care practitioner.
Based on my understanding of both science and nature, as well as the inferior functioning of isolated nutrients, I always recommend for people to consume foods in their most natural, whole forms. This is where the most powerful health, healing and preventative benefits reside. This applies very strongly to the pomegranate as well. Nature’s intelligence is still beyond our comprehension, but we must come back to respecting the intricate harmony with which our body and health work when properly supported. Properly here meaning the most naturally conducive way for optimal functioning.
I understand that some of us want the convenience of a quick juice or pill (as described above) and don’t want to spend the few minutes needed to peel and prepare our own pomegranate fruit. But ultimately it all depends on the quality of health and wellness that we are interested in, and where or how we are willing to invest our money. In some cases, perhaps those options may be justified, in most however, they are not. We cannot cheat nature or our body. Our health—the creation and maintenance of it—is much too intricate and depends on an intelligent incorporation of supportive natural components.
Ultimately, when it comes to the pomegranate, or any other fruit or vegetable, hopefully your first choice is always the fresh fruit, and an organic option if possible.
Other Pomegranate Foods & Drinks
With the popularity of the pomegranate, we have also seen a variety of other pomegranate-based or inclusive food products. From jams and jellies, to various drink mixes and bars, there are many foods out there that contain pomegranate. While some of these may have the right intentions, and perhaps even some nutritive benefits, let us not forget that processed food IS processed food. Just because we take something healthy and include it as part of a processed package, does not make that package healthy.
Highly refined, heat-treated and processed foods destroy many of the vital nutrients that plant foods, like the pomegranate possess. There is no replacement for the whole, fresh fruit. If we choose to consume any processed foods based on, or made with pomegranate, we simply have to be aware of the fact that we are in no way optimizing our use of this fruit. In fact many of these foods may have many other additives, like sugars, colors, refined carbohydrates and fats, which make them far from healthy from us. So remember, don’t get blindsided by fancy images or claims. Read all of your product ingredients, think consciously, and be a discerning consumer in order to responsibly create your health.
So far no adverse effects have been reported in studies that examined pomegranate use, whether whole, in juice or as supplemental extracts.
However if you are on medication, some care and caution needs to be exercised. Due to its powerful properties as a functional food some evidence indicates that pomegranate juice (and potentially whole fruit) may interact with several medications (similar to grapefruit juice). The medication groups which may be adversely affected by pomegranate juice mainly include: ACE inhibitors, blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication and blood thinners.
With respect to other safety concerns, just be sure to always thoroughly wash your pomegranate before cutting or peeling to extract the arils, as part of smart sanitary food preparation. It is always a good idea to source out organically grown produce, but especially so for the pomegranate if you choose to use its peel/rind.
Pomegranate Preparation & Uses
Oftentimes many people feel intimidated by this fruit and its supposed complex preparation. This leads many to either completely avoid this fruit, or opt for the so-called convenience of its juice counterpart. However, once we learn how quick and easy pomegranate preparation can be, we will hopefully change our mind about this. In the video below I share with you how to work with a pomegranate and incorporate it as part of your regular diet. It is most commonly eaten on its own, or added to healthy meals, like salads.
Further Reading & Resources
Therapeutic Applications of Pomegranate - a review paper by Julie Jurenka
Pomegranate and Its Many Functional Components as Related to Human Health - a review paper by M. Viuda-Martos et al.
Pomegranates: Ancient Roots to Modern Medicine - a book by David Heber et al.