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What Are Pomegranates?

Description, history, culinary uses, and health benefits.

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Fresh Pomegranate

Fresh Pomegranate

Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol [flickr]

Pomegranates burst onto the health food scene about ten years ago with their bright, jewel-like seeds and ruby red juice. Today the juice can be found in a variety of products, touting antioxidant properties and numerous health benefits. Despite it's recent popularity in the United States, pomegranates have been a prized fruit in other parts of the world since ancient times.

Pomegranate General Information

Pomegranates are similar in size to a small grapefruit and have a reddish-orange skin. Inside the rind the fruit is filled with numerous seeds, each encased in a bright red capsule of juice. The juice filled capsule is the edible portion of the fruit, with the pith and rind discarded. The juicy seeds can be eaten whole, added to other dishes, or the juice can be extracted and seeds discarded.

The fruit grows on a bush, Punica granatum, that is native to the middle-eastern region and can grow up to 50 feet tall. Although the bush can survive hundreds of years, they usually only produce fruit for a few decades. The bush typically produces fruit from September to February in the northern hemisphere, or from March to may in the southern hemisphere.

Pomegranate History

Because the pomegranate is native to the regions of the world that are thought to be the cradle of civilization, the pomegranate is recorded in many ancient texts, including Babylonian texts, the Book of Exodus, the Homeric Hymns and the Quran. There is some speculation that the fruit eaten from the tree of knowledge in the Bible's story of the Garden of Eden is actually a pomegranate. Pomegranates often symbolized prosperity in the Ancient world. The name pomegranate is medieval latin for "seeded apple" (pomum granatum).

Culinary Uses for Pomegranate

Pomegranate has a naturally sweet-tart flavor that varies from fruit to fruit. Pomegranate juice is unarguably the most common pomegranate product in the United States, where it is often mixed with other juices or ingredients to minimize the tart flavor. Grenadine, which is a sweetened and thickened pomegranate juice, is a common additive to cocktails.

Pomegranate molasses (or syrup) is an even thicker product than grenadine and is used in a variety of dishes from desserts, to cocktails, to dips and sauces.

Whole, fresh pomegranate seeds are often eaten raw. They can be consumed plain as a snack or sprinkled over salads, yogurt, or any other dish. Dehydrated pomegranate seeds that still retain a small amount of moisture can be added to trail mixes, cereal, or any dish that calls for dried fruit. Unlike other dried fruits, the seed provides a slight crunch. Seeds that are separated from their fleshy casing, dried, and then ground to a powder are used in Persian cooking to provide a unique, tart flavor.

Pomegranate Health Claims

Pomegranates have proven high levels of antioxidants, although the health benefits of those antioxidants have yet to be proven. The antioxidant levels in pomegranate are some of the highest recorded for various fruits, even higher than blueberries. There is some speculation that the antioxidant properties of pomegranates may help lower blood pressure, reduce heart disease, and provide protection against cancer. At this time these claims are still unproven and some manufacturers of pomegranate products have even been ordered to stop advertising these effects until further proof has been obtained.

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