Health benefits of this potent winter fruit.

Health benefits of this potent winter fruit.

Six little pomegranate seeds-that's what we can blame winter on, at least according to Greek mythology. Pomegranates were the one food that the goddess Persephone was tempted to eat while she was imprisoned in Hades, thus condemning her to return to the Underworld for six months every year. During this time, her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, mourns her absence and allows nothing to grow on Earth.

Today, pomegranates, which proliferate across central California in the fall, are just as tempting. Their glistening scarlet seeds adorn salads and turn dishes-from roast chicken to pudding-into seasonal celebrations.

Recently, scientists have turned up evidence to support some of the lore that associated the fruit with longevity and fertility, thanks in part to a modern-day Persephone named Lynda Resnick. Resnick (co-owner of the Franklin Mint, Teleflora and Fiji Water) was so taken with the fruit and its high levels of antioxidants, she founded the juice company POM Wonderful in 2002. Since then, POM has spent more than $34 million on studies and boasts a host of health claims (some of which have run afoul of the FDA and the FTC, both of which took action against POM this year).

Indeed, claims that pomegranate juice can prevent or cure diseases, such as diabetes, are misleading-and not supported by science. That said, positive findings from POM-sponsored research (mostly small, short-term pilot studies) have been published in prestigious scientific journals and are legit, though preliminary.

The upshot? Even if pomegranates won't bring you back from the Underworld, the following recipes will brighten your dinner.

6 Facts About Pomegranates

1. Pomegranates originated in Persia and were brought to California by the Spaniards. Now they flourish there and can even be found growing wild by the roadside. To find the ripest fruit, judge a pomegranate by its weight, not its color. The heavier ones contain more juice.

2. With anywhere from 600 to more than 1,000 arils, or seeds, to a fruit, the pomegranate (from the Latin for "seeded apple") has long been a symbol for fertility. But does it hold promise for men with erectile dysfunction, as POM has claimed? Science has yet to back this up. However, the theory is that antioxidants in the fruit improve blood flow by reducing plaque in the arteries and increasing nitric oxide, which signals arteries to relax and expand.

3. The antioxidants in a daily cup of pomegranate juice might help to keep free radicals from oxidizing "bad" LDL cholesterol, suggested a preliminary study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Oxidized LDL contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.

4. A randomized clinical trial of 45 people, published in 2005 in The American Journal of Cardiology, showed that drinking pomegranate juice might improve blood flow to the heart in people with myocardial ischemia, a serious condition in which the heart's oxygen supply is compromised because the arteries leading to it are blocked.

5. Pomegranate juice does have more antioxidants than other fruit juices. It is made by pressing the whole fruit-a good thing, as most of the antioxidants in a pomegranate are concentrated in the peel, the membranes and the white pith.

6. To seed a pomegranate, fill a large bowl with water. (Working in a bowl of water will help you avoid being stained by pomegranate juice.) Lightly score the fruit into quarters from crown to stem end, cutting through the skin but not into the interior of the fruit. Hold the fruit under water, break it apart and use your hands to gently separate the plump seeds (arils) from the outer skin and white pith. The seeds will drop to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the surface. Discard the pith. Pour the seeds into a colander. Rinse and pat dry. Seeds can be frozen for up to 3 months.

November/December 2010