Have you eaten a pomegranate? The fruit features in Greek mythology in the story of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter. Hades, the lord of the underworld, kidnapped the beautiful maiden. Because she ate a few pomegranate seeds before being rescued, she had to spend several months every year in the underworld with him. According to the myth, that?s when the earth was forced to endure winter.

Modern stories about pomegranates are not quite as fanciful as the myth, but there is a lot of buzz lately about the exotic fruit. How much is supported by scientific research?

Pomegranates grow wild from Iran to northern India, but they are cultivated throughout India, the Middle East, southern Europe and California. Scientists in Israel have been conducting research on the health benefits of pomegranates and pomegranate juice for years, and now others have joined in.

What are pomegranates good for? Researchers report that they are rich in antioxidants that can keep bad LDL cholesterol from oxidizing (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2000). This degradation of LDL seems to be an initial step in the development of atherosclerosis. In addition, pomegranate juice, like aspirin, can help keep blood platelets from clumping together to form unwanted clots.

Does this make any difference clinically? More recent research has found that eight ounces of pomegranate juice daily for three months improved the amount of oxygen getting to the heart muscle of patients with coronary heart disease (American Journal of the College of Cardiology, Sept. 2005). Other researchers report that long-term consumption of pomegranate juice may help combat erectile dysfunction (Journal of Urology, July 2005).

Investigators are also excited about the possibility that pomegranate compounds might prevent prostate cancer or slow its growth. In mice, treatment with pomegranate extract delayed the development of tumors and improved survival (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 26, 2005). Other research reports suggest that pomegranate juice might help reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Pomegranate is one of the foods for which there is currently a health 'buzz'. Specifically, it is claimed that the polyphenols found in pomegranate juice have many health benefits, and that extracts of pomegranate can aid in anti-aging and in preventing heart disease.

Is any of this true? Are the claimed benefits of pomegranate juice or extracts actually real?

The pomegranate is the fruit of a warm climate shrub or small tree which has been cultivated in Asia and around the Mediterranean sea for centuries. It is now grown in many countries around the world where the climate allows. It is a fruit which is fairly difficult and fiddly to peel and eat, with the juicy red 'arils' or seed cases needing to be separated from the pith by hand. It is usually eaten raw.

In folk mythology, pomegranates traditionally have 365 'seeds'. However, modern studies, which have actually counted seeds in individual pomegranates grown in various countries, have shown that the number of seeds can vary from 329 to over 1000! In fact, the bigger a pomegranate is, the more seeds it is likely to have.

The juice (whether fresh or extracted) of the pomegranate contains vitamin C, folic acid, and polyphenols (antioxidants), which are the basis of the health claims for the fruit.

Polyphenols work by removing free radicals from cells, which helps to maintain the human cell function, and they also aid in wound repair, in strengthening the immune system, and by having an anti-inflammatory effect. Perhaps the most famous benefit is that these polyphenols can help to slow skin wrinkling, and so pomegranates are a popular ingredient in anti-aging remedies, both traditional and modern.

Recent research has also shown that pomegranates can also help with osteoarthritis, by slowing the deterioration of cartilage. Another study has presented evidence that pomegranate juice was effective in increasing blood flow to the heart, and so was helpful for patients with ischemic heart disease. This was a study in which test subjects drank 8 ounces of juice every day for three months. It was also shown to reduce arterial plaque, in a patient test group.

In view of these results, many commercial supplements and extracts are becoming available in concentrated or capsule form. The benefits of using pomegranate extracts as a health supplement are that the less useful ingredients of the juice are removed, including the sugar and calories.

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