Pomegranates were around centuries before their juice became the it drink about a decade ago. While a longtime favorite in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, pomegranates were once mostly grown for decorative purposes in the U.S., incorporated into holiday garlands, wreaths and cornucopias.
Such a misunderstood fruit, and for good reason. Its leathery skin, although a gorgeous deep red to purple, does not get the salivary juices flowing like an apple, peach or banana. And when you finally do break into the skin, you're met with hundreds of seeds encased in a spongy mass, which for the uninitiated looks far from appetizing.
Except for some, pomegranates are the nectar of the gods. The seeds are really arils, a yummy sac of juice that encases a tiny edible seed. Bite into an aril and you're met with a one-of-a-kind sensation: A burst of juice, sweet yet slightly tart.
Rumor has it that Eve tempted Adam with a pomegranate, not an apple. Of course, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is that since POM Wonderful pomegranate juice hit the market, this once little-known fruit has been causing quite a stir in nutrition circles.
Here are some facts:
Pomegranates, like other fruits and vegetables, are a major source of nutrients and phytochemicals, which include antioxidants.
Polyphenols are a major group of phytochemicals, and unlike most other produce, pomegranates contain all three types of polyphenols.
The National Cancer Institute says a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, possibly because of dietary fiber, polyphenol antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Dr. Mehmet Oz says pomegranate arils contain ellagic acid and punicalagin, which fight damage from free radicals and preserve the skin's collagen. In addition, phytonutrients promote healthy skin.
POM's manufacturer has spent millions of dollars on research, which has claimed the juice decreases arterial plaque, reducing the risk of heart disease and improving treatment. POM also claims its miracle fruit lowers blood pressure, improves blood flow to the heart, and may reduce the risk and improve the treatment of prostate cancer. Finally, it could do wonders for erectile dysfunction.
The Federal Trade Commission is arguing that POM Wonderful's studies have not proven these claims.
POM Wonderful and the FTC are currently embroiled in a legal battle.
So what's a girl to do? "It's simple," says Jean Bigaouette, a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator practicing in Albany. "Eat your fruits and vegetables, but know that there is no such thing as one fruit solving all the world's illnesses. Many foods have polyphenols, and they are all a lot less expensive than pomegranates.
"You need to look at your overall diet and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. I would never hang my hat on one fruit," she adds.
Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Pomegranate Council, the public relations arm of California's pomegranate growers, suggests that everyone give at least one pomegranate a try. And right now is the perfect time, as pomegranate season is upon us in the market.
"I know that one of the daunting barriers that keep people from buying a pomegranate is that they have no idea what to do with one," Tjerandsen says. But he says it's as simple as one, two, three!
Tjerandsen lives in Sonoma County, Calif., and grows a pomegranate tree on his property. His crop is so bountiful, it keeps him -- and his lucky friends and family -- in pomegranates throughout the growing season, now through January. "But you in the Northeast can grow your own tree," he says. "They are tremendously prolific. A single tree yields 150 to 200 pomegranates each year. The key is to keep trimming your pomegranate tree, so it grows no higher than 10 to 12 feet."