Pomegranates - the super fruit.
Pomegranates are one of the oldest fruits in our history and hold tremendous ancient lore and appeal. Add that to the health benefits of pomegranate, and it's easy to see why the fruit is so very popular.
Modern marketing would have you believe that this fruit can cure just about any ill and extend life along the way.
But, what is the actual science behind pomegranates and how many of those benefits are actually real?
Why Pomegranates Are Good For You
Pomegranates are heavily promoted for being healthy and they do have the potential to help improve health when you consider the research.
Implications for Diabetes
Recent research suggests that inflammation can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes as well as some other chronic diseases (1).
This perspective suggests that the use of anti-inflammatories and an anti-inflammatory diet may help to reduce the risk of diabetes or may even play a role in treating the disease.
One study on this topic looked at pomegranate juice consumption in patients with type 2 diabetes.This study used a randomized double-blind design with 50 patients. The patients were assigned to either a treatment or a control group.
After 12 weeks of either pomegranate or placebo treatment, the authors found that inflammation markers were significantly lower in the treatment group compared to the group that had the placebo (2).
Another study looked at the use of pomegranate juice on a range of diabetic variables. The authors found that three hours after consumption, pomegranate juice was able to significantly decrease insulin resistance, improve β-cell function and improve fasting glucose levels (5).
Although these two studies seem to contradict one another that really isn’t the case.
Instead, the first study offers an indication that pomegranate juice does not have a long-term impact on insulin resistance or fasting glucose level. However, the second study shows that pomegranate juice can have a short-term impact on these outcomes.
This makes pomegranate very relevant for diabetes if it is consumed regularly.
Likewise, a third study looked at outcomes for 28 patients and found that the consumption of fresh pomegranate juice was able to reduce some of the key cardiovascular risk factors in patients who were overweight or obese (6).
Pomegranate has also been associated with improved cardiovascular outcomes, including reduce blood pressure (7).
- The study examined outcomes in 51 adults, age between 30 and 50 years. Participants either had a control drink or pomegranate juice (330 ml/day) for four weeks, after which outcomes were measured.
- The authors found that pomegranate juice improved short-term measures of blood pressure, but had no impact on pulse wave velocity, which is a longer-term measure (8).
Likewise, a second study also looked at pomegranate juice and blood pressure.
- This study used 21 hypertensive patients who received either pomegranate juice (150 ml/day) or water for a period of two weeks.
- The study found that the supplementation with pomegranate juice decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels, suggesting that it may act as an important cardioprotective supplement (9).
Another study looked at pomegranate supplementation in 13 participants with hypertension.
- The participants were given 150 ml of pomegranate juice per day following a 12-hour fast. The patients experienced a significant reduction in both their systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels (10).
A characterizing element of Alzheimer’s disease is the development of Aβ plaques, which form in the brain. These plaques hinder cognitive function and contribute to many of the outcomes of Alzheimer’s disease (11). It isn’t possible to directly visualize the plaques in a living brain, so researchers look for indications of the plaques' presence.
Pomegranates have potential to help with Alzheimer's disease in multiple ways.
Punicalagin is a powerful antioxidant and has been linked to reductions in the level of inflammation associated with Parkinson’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis (12).
Now there is growing interest in the use of this same compound as part of drugs to treat inflammation that is occurring within the brain. This type of inflammation is important because it can result in damage to brain cells – making the symptoms of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease significantly worse.
Animal research indicates that punicalagin is indeed able to inhibit some neuroinflammation by interfering with the NF-KB signaling pathway that plays a role in inflammation (13). In doing this, punicalagin acts in a neuroprotective way, potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (14).
Likewise, supplementation with pomegranate has been shown to play an anti-inflammatory role in the brain and may help to curb the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (15).
Another way that pomegranate can help in fighting Alzheimer’s is through its antioxidant function. Oxidative stress is thought to play a significant role in Alzheimer’s disease, and reducing this stress may result in improved outcomes.
There is considerable support for this perspective because high levels of oxidative stress can induce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in animal models (16).
A study on mice suggested that supplementation with 4% pomegranate was able to significantly reduce the oxidative stress and alter the activities of enzymes in the brain (17). A second study found similar outcomes (18).
Studies directly on pomegranate have also highlighted on its potential to act as a preventative factor or even a form of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
- One study looked at dietary supplementation of mice with pomegranate as part of their feed. The mice who were on the pomegranate supplemented feed showed significant improvements in a range of outcomes, including memory, locomotor function, learning and levels of anxiety (19).
- Another study used pomegranate supplementation and looked at key indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. The authors found that there was no difference in cognitive performance across groups, but pomegranate supplementation did result in improvements in markers of Alzheimer’s disease (20).
- Additionally, pomegranate supplementation has been shown to reduce the accumulation of amyloids in animal models (21).
Pomegranate and Cancer
Pomegranates have been linked to is a decrease in the risk of cancer, especially prostate cancer (22).
Research suggests that extract from pomegranate or pomegranate itself may play a key role in inhibiting the growth of a range of different type of cancer cells in culture (23). This includes against skin, lung, prostate and colon cancer (24).
Chemical compounds in pomegranate have been linked to stimulating cell differentiation and decreasing the risk of mutations that can lead to cancer development. The chemical components of pomegranate have also been linked to a range of other anti-cancer roles (25).
Likewise, some polyphenolics from pomegranate have been linked to disruption of two key pathways in the development of breast cancer (26).
There has also been a focus on determining the roles of different compounds in pomegranate in fighting the progression of prostate cancer and the research in this area is still ongoing (27).
- One key emphasis of future research will be determining therapeutic mechanisms for pomegranate in fighting cancer (28).
- The polyphenols in pomegranate have been linked to this role, as polyphenols, in general, have linked to favorable outcomes for patients with prostate cancer (29).
- This is thought to be through interaction between genes and nutrients as well as the antioxidant impacts of the phytochemicals (30).
Other Pomegranate Benefits
Pomegranate juice has also been linked to improvements in benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is another term for prostate enlargement.
- One animal study found that the use of pomegranate fruit extract was able to improve a range of outcomes for a group of rats with induced BPH (31).
- A study on humans found that pomegranate juice was able to act in a preventative manner in the development of BPH (32).
- While this isn’t an area that has been studied in depth, it is an important area of consideration because prostate enlargement can be frustrating and painful. So, anything that potentially helps offer some relief is worth trying.
Pomegranate has also been associated with benefits for people with osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- This outcome may be connected to pomegranate's potential as an anti-inflammatory agent.
- A review on the topic identified 35 studies on the topic with eight that met the study’s inclusion criteria.
- The review found that the studies consistently showed that pomegranate juice or extract was able to improve outcomes for people with either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis (33).
Pomegranate has also been associated with potential treatment for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease because of the compound punicalagin. In particular, pomegranate may play a significant role in reducing risk factors by decreasing levels of inflammation and oxidative stress (34).
As with most fruits, pomegranate has a complex chemical makeup, including many natural compounds whose role are largely unknown.
One of the key nutritional elements of pomegranate is its ability to act as an antioxidant and this strongly contributes to pomegranates being health protective. This comes from a range of different compounds, including vitamin C and some phytochemicals.
Some of the other nutrients represented in pomegranate include vitamin K, folate, thiamin and vitamin B6 as well as manganese and copper.
Because inflammation can be painful, potentially damaging to health and often persists for extended periods of time, there is a lot of interest in reducing inflammation, particularly through natural approaches.
There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that pomegranate may be highly significant as an anti-inflammatory agent.
- One of the reasons for this is the way that pomegranate is able to inhibit the activation of the NF-KB inflammatory pathway as well as other inflammatory pathways (35).
- Additionally, an extensive review found that pomegranate can have anti-inflammatory impacts within the gut, potentially resulting in protection against ulcers (36).
As an Antioxidant
Antioxidants are important because they have the potential to reduce the prevalence and development of a number of chronic diseases (37). Surprisingly, the amount of antioxidants consumed in the modern Western diet is decreasing (38).
- One study on the topic looked at the role of pomegranate juice on oxidative stress. Specifically, the authors considered the issue of hemodialysis. This is a medical procedure that is necessary in some cases but can cause significant oxidative stress. The authors found that patients who received pomegranate juice did not see an increase in oxidative stress (39).
- A randomized placebo-controlled study on the topic found that pomegranate supplementation improved immunity in the long-term and lowered oxidative stress and inflammation in the short-term (40). Another study looked at supplementing with a combination of pomegranate and grape juice, and also found that this reduced oxidative stress (41).
An alternative way to test for impacts on oxidative stress is to induce it through exhaustive exercise. One study did this in a sample of 28 young men.
- In that study, the test group received pomegranate juice daily while the control group received water. The authors found that the group that received pomegranate juice had higher levels of antioxidant capacity compared to the control group.
- The authors argued that this outcome means that the test group had higher protection against oxidative damage from of exercise (42).
- One of the reasons for this pattern may be the presence of polyphenols in pomegranate as these have been linked to protection against oxidative damage (43).
Compounds in Pomegranate
As with many fruits, pomegranate contains a wide range of biologically active compounds. Three particularly important groups of compounds in pomegranate are ellagitannins, phytochemicals and phytophenols.
Phytochemicals is a general term for a large group of chemicals that naturally occur in plant species. Many of them also have biological significance for humans and have been associated with potential health benefits. Estimates suggest that there are around 124 phytochemicals in pomegranate alone although there may be more yet to be discovered.
Ellagitannins, are a smaller group of chemicals, but they have been the subject of significant research, especially for their potential as strong antioxidants, antiviral agents and anti-cancer agents (44).
- Pomegranates are a rich source of these ellagitannins and these may be the reason for many of the benefits associated with pomegranates (45).
- However, some research suggests that the way that ellagitannins are metabolized means that they are unlikely to be significant antioxidants in the body. This may mean that other components of pomegranate are responsible for some of its impacts on health (46).
The third class of significant chemicals in pomegranate are polyphenols. In particular, three types of antioxidant polyphenols are especially important in pomegranate, these are ellagic acid, anthocyanins and tannins.
As with many plants, it seems that as with many plants, the action of the different components of pomegranate together is more significant than any individual component on its own (50).
Pomegranates and Sugar
Like other fruits, pomegranates tend to be high in natural sugars.
A 100 g serving of pomegranate arils (a bit over half a cup) contains 10.1 g of sugars. This is quite high although there are some fruits that are higher.
However, the saving grace of pomegranate is in its seeds. The seeds of the fruit are high in fiber and this helps to reduce the impacts that this sugar has on blood sugar.
This is the main reason that pomegranates are so much better than pomegranate juice. Despite the sugars, 100 g of arils only amounts to 83 calories, contains 4 g of fiber and has a glycemic load of 6 (51).
While the juice does have a range of benefits the amount of sugar in it (and the lack of fiber) is a major disadvantage.
Interestingly, despite the high sugar levels in pomegranate juice, research has indicated that the juice does not have a negative impact on blood parameters in diabetic patients (52). The authors of that study also noted that pomegranate juice resulted in positive antioxidant effects that could benefit the patients (53).
Pomegranates tend to be high in sugar, but the fiber in the pomegranate seed can offset this
How Do You Eat a Pomegranate?
The red jewels in pomegranates are called arils. They are little pods that contain juice and a small white seed. You can eat the seed (it's a good source of fiber) and most people do. You could theoretically spit them out, but that process gets frustrating fast.
Before that, you need to get the arils out of the pomegranate.
- Cut open the pomegranate and simply eat the arils out of it directly. This is the most common way to eat a pomegranate, but it isn’t very useful if you want to use the arils in cooking or if you want to store them.
- One way of getting the seeds out is to cut the fruit into sections and then hold a section upside down. Once you have done this, you can beat on the back of the fruit using a wooden spoon (beat gently!). This should make most of the arils detach and fall to the surface below.
- The video below shows a particularly cool technique.
Make sure you avoid the white pith and the skin, they're bitter and very unappealing.
Getting the arils out of a pomegranate doesn't need to be difficult
Including Pomegranate in Your Diet
You can simply eat pomegranate arils or drink the juice, but pomegranates are also pretty versatile. There are many many different ways to include the fruit in your diet.
Juicing and Blending
One approach for using pomegranate is to juice or blend the fruit yourself.
- You can juice a pomegranate in much the same way that you would juice a citrus fruit, using either a hand-press juicer or an electric juicer.
- If you do use an electric juicer, you do need to be careful, because you don’t want to accidentally juice the white membrane along with the arils. If you did that, it would ruin the taste of your juice.
- Once you have finished juicing the pomegranate, you can simply strain out the seeds.
An alternative approach is to roll the whole pomegranate.
- With this approach, you don’t open or cut the pomegranate in any way.
- Instead, you gently roll the pomegranate across a hard surface. When you do this, you should hear cracking, which is the seeds breaking.
- When the cracking stops you can pierce the rind of the fruit and squeeze out the juice. Alternatively, some people choose to drink the juice directly out of the fruit using a straw.
Just be aware that pomegranates don’t tend to have a lot of juice in them.
On average, a medium-sized pomegranate will have about a quarter of a cup of juice. This is enough for many recipes, but you may want to consider buying the juice directly if you were wanting to drink it each day.
The alternative to juicing is to blend the arils. Blending pomegranate arils is just as simple as blending any other type of fruit. You can then strain the blended product to get rid of the seeds (or keep the seeds for extra protein).
There are many different types of smoothies that you can make using blended pomegranate, such as a mixed berry smoothie.
Pomegranate Recipe Ideas
There are a lot of different options for using pomegranate from the simple to the complex.
Perhaps the most common use of pomegranate is as a garnish. Pomegranate arils have a fantastic color that can complement many different dishes well.
For example, some salads will use pomegranate arils and toss them through.
Some other examples include using pomegranates as a garnish on sesame chicken, on enchiladas or on a kale salad (there is a fantastic list here). Another powerful selection of recipes can be found at The Lemon Bowl.
The Pomegranate Council also has a large list of different recipes that you can make with pomegranates, including main courses as well as desserts. You can also sprinkle pomegranate arils on top of yogurt, and the flavor works particularly well with Greek or skyr yogurt.
There are many options for including pomegranate in the diet, including juicing, blending, eating the arils whole or using pomegranate in recipes
Pomegranate Snacks & Drinks
The potential of pomegranate has become pretty well known in recent years and this has led to a variety of products coming onto the market.
However, many of the products out there aren’t actually good for your health at all.
Pomegranate is a distinctive flavor and this means that juices only need to contain a very small amount of pomegranate to actually taste like it. Additionally, the labeling on juices is based on distinctive flavors, not on the proportions of actual juice in the bottle.
Because of this, many of the pomegranate drinks out there actually don’t contain all that much pomegranate. Some are made from concentrate too, which means you never quite know what you're getting.
The biggest name on the market for pomegranate juice is POM Wonderful. This is a company that has many customers but has also drawn its share of controversy - often overselling their products in advertisements like this:
Ironically, that particular ad actually ended up being banned because of how misleading it was (54). But, is POM Wonderful actually healthy?
- In its favor, POM Wonderful doesn’t use any filler juices and its pure pomegranate juice product is basically what it claims to be.
- However, even then, the drink is from concentrate and contains natural flavoring, as well as whatever additives are in the concentrate itself. So, you aren’t looking at a fully natural juice.
Like most juices, POM Wonderful is more of a treat than a health elixir. If you like the taste, by all means, enjoy it. But, please be aware of the sugar content.
The overall benefits of actual pomegranate are always going to be better than what you get from the juice. That’s true for virtually any fruit versus fruit juice.
Customers tend to assume that anything with pomegranate will have the same health benefit. That’s not the case though – especially not when it comes to snacks.
One good example of this is the Brookside series of chocolates. The series has a pomegranate flavor as well as flavors from other ‘superfruits’. Even though the packaging never actually states it, the implication is that you are buying chocolate covered pomegranate – which isn’t the case at all.
The actual term for the interior of the candy is ‘sweetened real fruit juice pieces’. In essence, these are gummies sweetened with fruit juice. However, there is no indication of just how much pomegranate juice is in the mix.
There is probably enough pomegranate juice to give the center their flavor, and not enough to offer any benefits. Plus, a 1/4 serving includes 26 g of sugar and 180 calories. That is a whole lot of sugar and calories for a pretty small portion.
If you do want nutritional benefits from dark chocolate and pomegranate combined, then the best answer may simply be to make a similar snack yourself by mixing melted dark chocolate with pomegranate arils.
Read the Labels
As you can see from these examples, there is a lot of misleading advertising going on in relation to pomegranate. The best piece of advice I can give you is to take the time and read the product labels.
Pomegranate drinks and snacks often aren’t what they seem to be
Are Pomegranates a Superfood?
The term superfood is a marketing term and basically refers to foods that have a higher-than-normal amount of nutrients and may offer some benefit for medical conditions. The same is true for the term superfruit.
Some superfoods, like pomegranate, do have proven nutritional benefits, but other superfoods don’t. So, the label itself doesn’t mean anything, but yes, pomegranate does tend to be considered a superfood. And, many so-called superfoods do offer significant health benefits.
When Can You Get Pomegranates?
Pomegranates are a seasonal fruit and the best time to get them is when they are in season (late summer to early winter).
The growing popularity of pomegranates has increased their availability, with many stores choosing to import them in the off-season. This means you can get them any time of the year, although off-season fruit are imported and expensive.
How Long do Pomegranates Last?
The whole fruit will generally last a week or two when stored at room temperature. If you store them in the refrigerator, pomegranates will last as much as one or two months.
You can also freeze the arils of pomegranates. This is a fantastic way to have pomegranate at hand all year round for cooking and eating.
- The best way to do this is to lay out the arils in a single layer on something like a cookie sheet.
- Once they are frozen, transfer them to an airtight container or bag.
- Stored like this, frozen arils will still be of good quality in up to 10 to 12 months’ time.
Because pomegranates and pomegranate juice are natural products there is no recommended daily dose. However, eating or drinking a dietary amount of pomegranate is considered safe.
- This is somewhere between 8 and 12 oz of pomegranate juice (there is somewhere around 1/4 of a cup of pomegranate juice in a medium-sized pomegranate).
- Amounts of the juice have varied considerably, with some studies ranging from around 1 oz per day up to 8 oz per day or higher.
If you have a significant health condition, including diabetes, talk to your doctor first. Additionally, people with diarrhea should not drink pomegranate extract or juice.
Interactions with Medication
Some evidence suggests that pomegranates may interact with medications in a similar way to grapefruit juice. Medications of concern include:
There is a lot of marketing behind pomegranate and pomegranate juice, so it is tempting to believe that the proposed benefits to your health are nothing but hype.
This isn’t the case though. Pomegranates offer many proven advantages for your overall health and should be considered as a great addition to your diet.
Whether you choose pomegranate as a snack or as an ingredient in cooking, including it in your diet is a tasty and healthy decision.
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