Time Magazine
Peddling the Pomegranate

The Pomegranate is hot. Although it's a challenge to eat the raw fruit without getting a mouthful of seeds and astringent pith, pomegranates are everywhere now in the form of juice, concentrates and extracts, all heavily promoted for better health. Much of the popularity is the work of a California-based company, Pom Wonderful. It pays researchers to study the benefits of pomegranate juice, gives doctors information on positive studies and, of course, sells pomegranate products. The juice is a beautiful wine-red color and tastes delicious. But is it especially healthful?

Red and purple fruits owe their colors to anthocyanins, a subclass of polyphenols, which are ubiquitous in nature. Anthocyanins are important antioxidants. They protect plant tissue from oxidative damage from solar radiation and other environmental stresses. When we consume them, they protect our tissue from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are toxic molecules produced in the course of normal metabolism and are present in environmental toxins like tobacco smoke. Research in test tubes and on animals shows that anthocyanins have anti-inflammatory and cancer-protective properties and can lower risks of getting age-related diseases, including cardiovascular and neurological conditions.

Pomegranates and berries also contain ellagic acid, a polyphenol and potent antioxidant with heart-protective and anticancer effects. In berries the compound occurs mostly in seeds. Juice provides it in a more mouth-friendly way.

All experts on nutrition and health agree that it's wise to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables and that it's particularly important to include such polyphenol-rich foods as red wine, green tea, dark chocolate and extra-virgin olive oil, in addition to berries and pomegranates. I like them all, but the question is whether any one source offers advantages over all others.

Good clinical studies on pomegranates are few and have used small numbers of subjects. Still, researchers have found such cardiovascular benefits as: decreased blood pressure and oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol and improved blood flow through coronary arteries. A study from 2006 reported benefits in men with prostate cancer: 8 oz. daily of the juice slowed activity of residual tumor cells, as measured by serum PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels. Such encouraging results should inspire larger, better studies.

I like pomegranates. I'm sure they are good for us, but I don't consider them the ultimate health food or antioxidant source. Nature showers us with colorful fruits and vegetables, all with distinctive beneficial compounds. It is up to us to eat them in abundance and variety.

Have a question for Dr. Weil about antioxidants? Go to time.com/askdrweil