Pomegranate Health Benefits
Jill Taufer, Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist
Program Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
University of Florida/IFAS Volusia County Extension
(For related reading materials, click here)
Pomegranates have a rich history. They appear in Greek mythology, Egyptian tomb paintings, and are even mentioned in the Old Testament. Did these ancient cultures hold the pomegranate in such high esteem for their aesthetic beauty or is there more to the pomegranate story? There is evidence that over 2000 years ago the people of the Mediterranean used various parts of the pomegranate to treat a variety of ailments.
Modern science suggests this unique fruit does indeed provide health benefits. Pomegranates are high in polyphenols, including flavonoids and tannins. These plant chemicals (also called phytochemicals) act as antioxidants, decreasing oxidation in the body and protecting cells from free radical damage. The antioxidants in pomegranates also reduce inflammation and may have anti-aging effects. You won’t see the 122 phytochemicals found in pomegranate juice listed on the nutrition facts label. What you will see is that an 8 oz serving has 150 calories, is a good source of folate and potassium, and very good source of vitamin K. The juice also provides 5% of your daily value for vitamins E, B6, and pantothenic acid. The edible portions of the fruit are the seeds which contain two parts. The aril is the colorful pulp filled sac that houses a tiny seed called the embryo which can be soft or hard. There are hundreds of arils in each pomegranate. The fruit is a bit challenging to eat but that’s what makes it fun. One medium pomegranate yields about 5 oz of fruit delivering 100 calories. Eating the whole seeds with the embryo has the added benefit of fiber and provides about 40% of the daily requirement for vitamin C. Commercial pomegranate juice has been pasteurized for safety, which destroys the vitamin C.
There is a significant body of research indicating that pomegranates boost heart health. Studies reveal that the diverse and rich antioxidant content decreases inflammation and thickening of the artery walls. Pomegranate juice also seems to prevent blood cells called platelets from clumping together, reducing the buildup of cholesterol and plaque. Other research indicates reduction of blood cholesterol and blood pressure when pomegranate juice is included in a well-balanced diet. Scientists attribute heart healthy benefits to polyphenols, including anthocyanins, which are plant pigments that give the pomegranate its attractive red hue. Anthocyanins also add nutritional value to other berries such as strawberries and blueberries. Although a pomegranate has no resemblance to these other fruits the edible portion is a berry.
More clinical research is needed as a number of the studies investigating pomegranates role with heart health were conducted with small sample sizes. Also, keep in mind that consuming the fruit or juice in its whole unprocessed state is always best. The 2009 article “Pomegranate juice: a heart–healthy fruit juice,” published in Nutrition Reviews states, “Observational studies and clinical trials investigating the cardiovascular health benefits of fruits and vegetables, attribute these effects to the combination of phytochemicals, fiber, and other nutrients in whole food intake, rather than the sole effects of an individual component.” This Oklahoma State University report recommends that pomegranate juice be included in a heart-healthy diet.
Pomegranate’s high antioxidant content also has scientists investigating a potential role in decreasing the risk of certain cancers. Most studies have focused on the ability of pomegranate juice or juice concentrate to inhibit the growth of prostate, breast, colon and lung cancer. There are several pathways that seem to slow the growth of cancer cells. The ellagitannins found in pomegranates have the ability to prevent cancer cells from becoming mobile. Studies also show reduced blood supply to tumors which prevents cancer cells from obtaining nutrients. This was demonstrated in a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Oncology. Mice that had been inoculated with human prostate cancer cells received a four week treatment of pomegranate juice extract. The results showed a significant decrease in tumor size and tumor vessel density. Health organizations, including the American Institute for Cancer Research, caution that most studies have been done in test tubes or with animals. More research is needed to determine specific antitumor-promoting effects in humans.
Health benefits still under investigation include antiviral and antibacterial properties. Pomegranates also have an anti-inflammatory effect which some studies suggest are beneficial for individuals with arthritis.
How much is needed to get health benefits? Research has shown some heart health benefits from as little as two ounces of pomegranate juice a day. This is good news because an eight ounce serving contains 31 grams of sugar. Individuals taking prescription medications who want to add pomegranates to their diet should first discuss the possibility of drug-nutrient interaction with their physician or pharmacist. The high vitamin K content may counteract the work of blood thinners. Also, pomegranate may affect how quickly the liver breaks down certain medications including prescription drugs for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
Consumer demand for pomegranates has increased considerably in the past decade. The slightly tart flavor balanced with a refreshing sweetness appeals to many. Individuals are also becoming more aware of pomegranate’s reputation as a healthy choice. As awareness of health benefits increases, more individuals are choosing pomegranates as a delicious addition to a healthy diet.