Pomegranate. A hint of its juice and the sound of its name can command a premium price, or bestow superfood status on junk food. The whole fruit can be seen gracing holiday wreaths at historic sites, such as Colonial Williamsburg — a tradition that began in the 1930s. Its leftover rinds can be used to create an earthy yellow dye. Its design inspired engineers at Stanford to build a better battery, while musician Katy Perry used it as lipstick.
Examples of pomegranate swagger could fill an entire article — but the best way to appreciate the berry known as the “fruit of paradise” is to taste it. With up to 83 aromatic notes in its juices alone, the flavor of pomegranate blends the syrupy sweetness of Concord grapes, the refreshing astringency of cranberries, and the cooling quality of lemons. Each bite pops like tapioca.
If culinary pleasure isn’t enough, recent science supports historical claims that pomegranates promote health as much as they delight the taste buds. And for gardeners, the benefits are easy to harvest; pomegranates bear early and suffer from few diseases or pests. For orchardists seeking a niche market, pomegranates come in more than 1,000 diverse cultivars, most of which aren’t commonly available.
But to the frustration of pomegranate lovers in North America, more than a century of efforts have not lifted the fruit to staple status, because for many in the Western world, the pomegranate remains an edible puzzle — seemingly baffling and difficult to solve — that punishes every wrong move with an indelible spritz of scarlet juice. Luckily, its basic mysteries have begun to unfold in the hands of the many scientists who have turned to studying its health and beauty benefits.
A Healthy and Historic Fruit
Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphs show that the pomegranate has been used medicinally for as long as people have been writing. Wherever it spread, cultures placed their hopes on its ability to promote health and treat illnesses. Along with the Egyptian prescription for tapeworm, it got endorsements from Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder, first century Jewish physician Shabtai Donolo, and the medieval medicinal text Trotula. In China, it was recognized as a hydrating and cooling yin tonic, while Ayurveda calls it “a pharmacy unto itself.” Perhaps most famously, it was included in the coat of arms for the Royal College of Physicians in Britain in the 16th century. In more recent times, the pomegranate has been considered so healthy that when the Soviet Union sent monkeys into space, they were given a power drink made of pomegranate and rose hip juice.
Since the American revival of the pomegranate, the amount of research published on it has massively increased. Modern health claims center on the pomegranate as a unique factory that produces a rich blend of minerals, anthocyanins, and polyphenols, including some called “punicalagins” that exist in almost no other species and act as potent antioxidants. Like their apothecary predecessors, researchers have discovered pharmacological activity in all parts of the pomegranate plant, including the seed, juice, rind, leaf, flower, bark, and roots.
The range of study has been as extensive as the parts of the plant under investigation. The dynamic antioxidants in the fruit decrease blood pressure and lower the likelihood of atherosclerosis, both of which reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. Preliminary research hints that consuming pomegranates may help slow the development of cancer by interfering with tumor growth and reducing inflammation. Another line of inquiry focuses on compounds derived from pomegranates that might decrease the chance of HIV infection.
The most advertised research focuses on pomegranate as a healthy lifestyle fruit or athletic power drink. Studies done at The University of Texas at Austin found that an 8-ounce glass of juice may help athletes and recreational exercisers recover skeletal muscle strength after resistance training. At The University of California, Los Angeles, studies show that the polyphenol antioxidants in pomegranate may increase nitrate oxide bioavailability, which helps channel oxygen and nutrients into muscles during workouts.
Other promising investigations include pomegranate as a treatment for dietary inflammation, as an anti-gingivitis agent, as an antimicrobial, as a diabetes treatment, and as a skin damage reducer.
Skin Care All-Star
Just as the gourmet and health industries have started to experiment with pomegranate in the past decade, so has the cosmetic industry. Some of the lure for cosmetics manufacturers has to do with the fruit’s romantic and marketing appeal — for example, pomegranate perfume will not act as a medium for any of the fruit’s touted health benefits.
However, the same antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties we benefit from by consuming the fresh fruit or juice can also be derived from topical application of pomegranate. Soaps, body creams, facial products, and massage oils with a meaningful percentage of pomegranate are worth purchasing or crafting at home. And experiment with pomegranate seed oil, which preliminary studies suggest may help regenerate the epidermis when applied to skin. You only need to use a small amount of the oil in your skin care creations to reap the rewards.
While pomegranate is one of the most studied fruits available, it’s important to keep in mind that aggressive marketing sometimes gets ahead of the research. However, with such promising health benefits already proven, it will be interesting to see if any organization seeks FDA approval for pomegranate as treatment for a specific medical condition in the near future. In the meantime, keep a supply of these delicious, versatile fruits on hand to always have its benefits within reach.
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Benjamin Whitacre is an experienced gardener and writer who grows pomegranates in his Zone 7a garden in central Virginia.