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Punica granatum, also known as pomegranate, is a woody shrub native to the Persian plateau of Southwest Asia but now widely cultivated throughout the East Indies, Southeast Asia, Southern Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean. The plant is well known for its showy, bright red flowers and some cultivars are grown exclusively for this purpose. Punica granatum, however, also produces an edible berry with numerous seeds about the size of an apple. In fact, the name “pomegranate” is derived from the Latin words pomum and granatus, which translate to “apple” and “seeded,” respectively.
For thousands of years, the juice and seeds produced from Punica granatum have been featured in Persian and Indian cuisine. For example, pomegranate juice and seeds lend a distinctive flavor to ash-e anar, a popular Iranian soup that combines spiced beef and yellow peas. In Turkey, pomegranate sauce is used as a salad dressing and marinade, as well as a condiment served with fish. In India and Pakistan, the dried seeds are added to curry and chutney. In contrast, pomegranate wasn’t widely known in the U.S. and Canada until the early 21st century, where its culinary use is largely limited as a beverage.
Punica granatum provides significant nutritional value. The seeds are high in fiber, while the juice is abundant in vitamin C, potassium and pantothenic acid. Pomegranates also provide polyphenols, catechins and gallocatechins with antioxidant qualities similar to those found in green tea. Of particular interest is a group of tannins specific to pomegranates known as punicalagins, which have demonstrated free-radical scavenging activity in both humans and in laboratory tissue samples.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the fruit and bark of Punica granatum have been used as herbal remedies for thousands of years. Today, herbal medicines prepared from plant extracts of this small tree are still used in this traditional system of medicine to strengthen the heart, eliminate intestinal parasites, and to treat gastrointestinal disorders, including severe diarrhea associated with dysentery. Medicines made from the juice and bark are also used to stop bleeding gums and nosebleeds and, when combined with mustard oil, to treat hemorrhoids. The juice is also made into eyedrops to treat cataracts.
Several studies have shown that some of these and other health claims have considerable merit. Pomegranate juice, for instance, has been shown to inhibit the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins, indicating a potential benefit in preventing or treating cardiovascular disease. A small trial conducted by Israeli researchers and published in the journal Atherosclerosis revealed that daily consumption of pomegranate juice markedly reduced blood pressure in hypertensive patients within 14 days. The juice has also been shown to help reduce the development of dental plaque, as well as check viral infections. In addition, 20 clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health in 2009 are investigating the potential for pomegranate juice and seed extracts to address numerous other conditions, including infant brain injury, diabetes, kidney disease, atherosclerosis and prostate cancer.