For millennia, people have enjoyed the juicy tartness of the famous pomegranate, believing it to bode well for life and prosperity. Nowadays, researchers are unearthing more of the science behind the health benefits of pomegranates.
In the last couple of decades, evidence of the fruit’s antioxidant, antifungal, antidepressive and cancer-fighting properties has been mounting.1,2 Some researchers have learned of its power to boost memory,3 while others have reported on the relief it may provide to those who deal with arthritis and joint disorders.4
Pomegranate also offers new hope in the fight against COVID-19, as a team of Italian researchers have pointed to the role of pomegranates in calming the cytokine storm associated with severe forms of COVID-19 — highlighting its anti-inflammatory defenses that may also double as potent protection for your heart.5
Pomegranates May Provide Anti-Inflammatory Defense
Pomegranates, lemongrass and turmeric are often used by those who are looking for natural solutions to inflammation.6 They work through the mechanisms of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma, or PPAR-γ, which “… is an intra-cellular molecule that … modulates vascular and immune processes …”7
For that reason, the question has arisen as to whether it can help to calm the infamous cytokine storm associated with COVID-19. According to a group of Italian researchers, focusing on ways to reduce the immune response may allow the body to heal itself more quickly, particularly with the novel coronavirus:8
“The cytokine storm is an abnormal production of inflammatory cytokines, due to the over-activation of the innate immune response … an immunomodulatory approach targeting the over-production of cytokines could be proposed for viral aggressive pulmonary disease treatment.
In this regard, the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR)-γ, a member of the PPAR transcription factor family, could represent a potential target.”
The pomegranate-PPAR-γ connection is related to the punicic acid in the oils of its seeds, which lower the level of expression of the cytokines that cause inflammation.9 It’s the work of PPAR-γ that keeps the immune response at bay, and the transcription factor is said to work in a number of systems, including the nervous system, circulatory system, digestive system and immune system.
As one of the commonly available foods that offer this level of protection and defense, the role of the pomegranate in a healthy diet is becoming increasingly clear:
“Moreover, nutritional ligands able to activate PPAR-γ have been identified in a wide range of natural products, including sea food and fish oil, pomegranate, and herbs and spices (curcuma, thyme, oregano, hot pepper, rosemary, sage, lemongrass), commonly used in cooking. These nutritional PPAR-γ agonists exert inhibitory effects on pro-inflammatory cytokines and promote immune cell differentiation into anti-inflammatory phenotypes.
These foods could represent a natural anti-inflammatory defense useful to strengthen individual health. The promotion of a more conscious lifestyle characterized by a diet rich in foods, herbs, and spices capable of activating PPAR-γ could be a valid option to strengthen the immune system via natural methods in order to prevent cytokine storm occurrence in the case of infections due to coronavirus.”10
The four-person research team from Orsola-Malpighi Hospital and the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy, suggested that a two-pronged approach involving medications and diet may be the route to efficiently treating those with the virus.
A Unique Antioxidant Profile Benefits Heart Health
In 2013, a team from Haifa, Israel, wrote an article on the use of pomegranates in improving heart health, due to their impressive multiple mechanisms of action. In an extensive review of the literature, the scientists described how the fruit has long been used as traditional medicine.
Its juice is full of antioxidants with high bioavailability, each of which directly impact cardiovascular health.11 Multiple studies were cited in reference to the fruit’s ability to address atherosclerosis,12 blood pressure13 and cholesterol.14
What’s especially interesting about this fruit is that the antioxidants for which it’s known are bound to its sugars. Some researchers are impressed with its three-tiered punch against diabetes: It is low in carbohydrates, has a low glycemic load and helps with insulin sensitivity. For those with diabetes, this is good news.15 While the juice of the pomegranate was discussed most often, all parts of the fruit offer a nutritional windfall:16
“The preferred pomegranate product in terms of biological potency and consequent health benefits is [pomegranate juice] from the whole fruit (including the peel).
Since the combination of antioxidants that exists in [pomegranate juice] can provide a wider range of free radical scavenging capacities than an individual antioxidant, clinical and nutritional studies in humans should be directed towards the use of combinations of several types of dietary antioxidants, as well as combinations of flavonoids together with other nutritional antioxidants, such as vitamin E or carotenoids.”
Antioxidants are nature’s way of providing your cells with adequate defense against attack by reactive oxygen species (ROS). As we learn more and more about the role of antioxidants in almost every system of our body, it’s being discovered that pomegranates are one of the few foods that contain three types of antioxidant polyphenols, including tannins, anthocyanins and ellagic acid, in significant amounts. According to the authors:17
“An overall antioxidant potency composite index was calculated by assigning each test equal weight. [Pomegranate juice] had the greatest antioxidant potency composite index among the beverages tested and was at least 20% greater than any of the other beverages tested.”
Pomegranate for Ulcerative Colitis, Weight Loss
The authors of a 2016 study conducted at Texas A&M University noted that pomegranate’s anti-inflammatory tannins have been evaluated for helping prevent colon cancer. In an investigation involving mice, the team compared mangoes to pomegranates in terms of reducing inflammation in the stomach and found both to be beneficial. Both gallotannins in mangos and ellagitannins in the pomegranate were noted as being protective against ulcerative colitis.18
More recently, a study from Catania, Italy, gained attention for its discussion of pomegranate extract (PE) in relation to weight control. Specifically, “… a synergistic effect of probiotics and polyphenols contained in PE may affect in vitro adipogenesis and may contribute in development of new nutraceutical/probiotic-based remedies to prevent and to treat obesity,” researchers wrote.19
The team, led by Valeria Sorrenti of Università di Catania, took powdered pomegranate extract and mixed it with distilled water to study its polyphenol content and the effects it may have on the body.
Plant-based foods contain polyphenols, which are micronutrients known to aid in weight loss, digestion and even diabetes. Other foods, such as certain vegetables, beans and nuts, contain these, but pomegranate is of interest because of the amount that it contains as well as its overall nutritional profile.20
The Catania researchers also spoke of the role of PPARγ, explaining that it helps regulate the expression of genes related to fat as well as the body’s propensity to accumulate it. Pomegranates, along with a number of herbs, spices and types of seafood, have been shown to work by way of the PPARγ in activating glucose and lipid metabolism.21
In the same study, the team investigated a probiotic strain, LGG (L. rhamnosus GG ATCC 53103 strain), and noted that pomegranate extract, in combination with LGG, significantly lowered the amount of intracellular fat that accumulated. Many of their results were in line with those of previous researchers, which, when taken together, point to the promise of pomegranate-based solutions to modern health issues.
All Parts of the Pomegranate Promote Your Good Health
The popularity of pomegranates has grown as more and more is learned about the health benefits that may be realized from indulging in them. In India, where Ayurveda is practiced, all parts of the fruit — including the root and bark — have medicinal purpose.22
John Cardellina II, Ph.D., of the Reeves Group in Virginia Beach, Virginia, writes that the phenolic compounds gallotannins, ellagitannins, lignans, benzoic acid and anthocyanins are the main sources of pomegranate’s strength. Yet with all this, there is still much to be revealed, as the skin of the fruit is now being studied for 79 phenolic compounds that have been identified in the last several years.23
Pomegranate seed oil has its own special place in the fruit’s list of benefits, as it’s full of phytosterols and fatty acids. The U.S. FDA endorses the consumption of phytosterols, stating in a 2019 revision to the Code of Federal Regulations, “Scientific evidence demonstrates that diets that include plant sterol/stanol esters may reduce the risk of [coronary heart disease].”24
Plant Your Own, Prepare for a Bounty of Health Benefits
While there’s a regular stream of new evidence for the consumption of whole foods like pomegranates and perhaps pomegranate extract and peel in improving your health, it’s important to keep the fundamentals in mind: No one food is sufficient to meet all your nutritional needs, and too much of a good thing may introduce its own set of problems.
Also, with the growing interest in nonpharmaceutical remedies for common health ailments, unfortunately, some manufacturers have taken pomegranate extract and added a number of adulterants to it, thereby reducing its nutritional punch. In this way, you may be better off eating a whole piece of the fruit itself.25
Certain juices, meanwhile, may contain traces of pomegranate extract, but they can be loaded with artificial sugars and other additives that are not so helpful. It’s best to check the list of ingredients and opt for the brands that use organic, non-GMO ingredients and that also keep out the unwanted extras. If you choose to drink pomegranate juice, do so in moderation due to the sugar content.
Keep in mind, also, that pomegranate peel contains more than twice the amount of antioxidants than the pulp,26,27 but consuming the whole fruit in moderation will provide added fiber (which is found in the edible seeds).
If you’ve never eaten a pomegranate before you may be curious what part is actually edible, and what’s not. If you cut one in half, you’ll find that it’s filled with juice-filled seed sacs called arils (about 600 of them in an average pomegranate), separated by thin white (and bitter) membranes.
Arils are the “jewels” of the pomegranate, and they’re the part you’ll want to enjoy. Many people enjoy pomegranates alone as a snack, but you can also sprinkle the arils over salads or cooked dishes. Inside each aril is a crunchy, fiber-rich seed. While some people spit them out, you can eat them whole, seed and all.
You might even consider growing pomegranates yourself, and then experimenting with the number of ways the seeds, skin and flesh may be used in a healthy diet. Just like when you’re shopping for the best, most natural products, you’ll want to do the same thing when choosing from among the many merchants that sell fruit and nut trees.
Several reputable businesses specialize in non-GMO options,28 and many are also just as committed to wholly organic practices.29 When it’s time to dive in and enjoy this refreshing treat, consider my recipe for a Fall Mediterranean Chopped Salad or Healthy Beef Stroganoff.