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It's a ripe time for the little red seed

Drink it up, or slather it on. Antioxidant-packed, the trendy pomegranate is showing up in foods, cocktails, beauty products and more.

August 14, 2006|Jane Porter | Hartford Courant

Drink it. Eat it. Slather it all over your body.

There is no denying that the pomegranate, its fleshy burgundy bulb packed with juicy seeds, is one of the trendiest and most versatile fruits on the market.

In the last seven months, 215 new pomegranate food and beverage products were introduced in the United States, according to Tom Vierhile, director of Datamonitor's Productscan Online, which keeps track of new products. Last year, 258 pomegranate products were introduced, up from 93 in 2004, 31 in 2003 and 19 in 2002.

For centuries, the sweet but tart fruit has left its deep crimson splash just about everywhere -- in Greek mythology, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. But for today's consumer, the pomegranate has entered mainstream culture through more secular but equally worshipped outlets: Oprah, Rachael Ray, the Starbucks Frappuccino. And for good reason, according to health experts.

"It's just now that we are finding the modern evidences and proofs of its health effects .... It has been used for medicinal purposes for ages," says Navindra Seeram, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and lead co-editor of "Pomegranates: Ancient Roots to Modern Medicine," published recently.

Here are a few reasons -- according to research conducted by Seeram and colleagues at UCLA -- why the fruit is so good for you:

* Packed with antioxidants (even more than you'll find in cranberries, red wine and green tea), pomegranates might help prevent the onset of atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that leads to heart disease and stroke.

* Unlike most fruit juices, drinking a commercial juice such as POM Wonderful is more healthful than eating the fruit itself, because 70% of the antioxidants found in the juice are released from the peel when the pomegranate is squeezed.

* A study released by UCLA in June indicates drinking a glass of pomegranate juice daily can help slow the spread of prostate cancer, allowing diagnosed men to live longer.

* Menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, might be alleviated by the phytoestrogen found in the pomegranate seed. It's the only plant known to contain estrogen.

* A natural Viagra? Another recent study, which measured the erectile function of rabbits, showed a regular intake of pomegranate juice raises nitric oxide levels and blood supply as seen in those who take Viagra.

Companies are capitalizing on the fruit's growing appeal, with products such as chewing gum called Pomegranate Power by Ford Gum & Machine Co. and a pomegranate chicken sausage ($6 a pound) made by Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, a Los Angeles-based franchise.

Split open the tough skin of a pomegranate and you'll find hundreds of seeds bulging between webs of white membrane.

"People like the exotic nature of the product," Vierhile says. "People are becoming more adventurous in their eating and drinking habits, and pomegranates allow them to do that."

During the Oscars, celebrities could be found sipping Red Carpet Martinis (vodka, Grand Marnier and pomegranate juice, garnished with a gold leaf) at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles in Beverly Hills.

The fruit is also a popular antioxidant additive in beauty products.

"People have no aversion to slathering it on their body," says David Klass, co-president of Archipelago, which came out with its pomegranate collection in April.

"It's probably the most successful thing we have ever done," he says.

Of course, there may be a bit of a "snob factor" linked to the pomegranate's popularity, Vierhile speculates.

"You are seeing one of the latest trends out there," Vierhile says. "There's a certain cool factor to knowing about these things."

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