by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
The pomegranate is far from a local fruit and it will probably never be grown around here unless they come up with a variety that can tolerate the cold temperatures. Even though I have the best of intentions to eat 100-percent local, it’s not always possible. I do use small amounts of pomegranates while they are in season because I am drawn to their luscious red color and the nutritional punch they provide. They brighten up many a dish during the short dark days of the year right now. It can take a bit of work to get to the seed sacs or arils inside but it is well worthwhile to enjoy their rich ruby color and crunch. The number of seeds that you get from a good pomegranate go a long way too!
Pomegranate originated from the medieval Latin words pomum meaning apple and granatum meaning seeded. The French word for pomegranate is grenade and thus grenadine is the thick sweet syrup made from pomegranates. The English word grenade is derived from the French because French solders thought the weapon resembled the fruit. The pomegranate is a very unusually shaped fruit a little bigger than some apples with a leathery skin that is bright red when it is ripe. Unlike apples it has a crown on its top and once you cut into it you will find a wealth of surprises: the outer white fleshy material inside is called albedo and underneath it is a translucent yellow membrane which holds hundreds of bright red arils (seed sacs) that are bursting with tangy sweet juice. There may be some white seeds and they can be eaten as well since they provide a lot of fiber but do not have the same taste.
Pomegranates, believed to be one of the first cultivated fruits, are native in what is now Iran. Their cultivation enabled them to be spread throughout the Mediterranean region, Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and Southern Asia. Pomegranates came to Latin America and California via the Spanish settlers in the late 1700’s. It has been reported that President Jefferson had pomegranate trees in his garden at Monticello around that time too. Pomegranates continue to grow in the Southwest and California today where we receive a lot of our crop from late fall until January.
The pomegranate is packed with nutrients including vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and last but not least, powerful antioxidant polyphenols, which fight off damaging free radicals that are associated with the development of many diseases. Several of the polyphenols that account for pomegranates’ health attributes are punicalagin, anthocyanins, ellagic acid, and reservatrol (an active compound found in red wine). These have all been shown to help with protection against heart disease, cancer, and liver disease. An additional group of antioxidants, tannins, are responsible for the acidity of pomegranates and they are showing a lot of promise in the chemoprevention and chemotherapy of prostate cancer.
Getting into a pomegranate to get to the seeds can takes some time and patience but it is well worth it once you see the bright red seed gifts it provides. It can be messy but one way to avoid this is by cutting off the top and bottom and then scoring the skin at different sections. At this point break apart the sections under cool water in a bowl and loosen the seed cases or arils in the water so you don’t get red juice in every direction. Strain out the floating membranes (they taste awful) and enjoy all the seeds or tiny fruit that now only need to be broken apart. Another method I’ve heard about but have yet to try myself is to cut the pomegranate in half, then take a spatula or wooden spoon—over a large bowl to reduce splatter —and give them a good whack. The beautiful seeds tumble out of the fruit. This might even be a good stress-release for the holiday season! Store the seeds in the refrigerator but use them within a few days. For all the work you have to do to get to its edible contents it is best to use pomegranates fresh in recipes. I love adding it them to salads, as a garnish, in a fruit salad, in yogurt, and on frozen desserts. I also like putting them in a clear glass of mineral water or seltzer to show off their color.