Discover the Heart Health Benefits of Pomegranate

By on January 28, 2014

    The slippery, garnet-red seeds of the pomegranate (dried and used in India as a spice) started to attain notoriety as a gourmet health food back in the ‘90s, when studies first linked them to heart and prostate health. These days, pomegranate is mega-trendy, and you can find it flavoring everything from water to popsicles to cocktails. It is also mega-healthy. Every bit of it. The seeds, pulp, skin, root, flower – even the bard from the pomegranate tree – are all brimming with polyphenols, disease-fighting antioxidants found in plants. (Pomegranate seed extracts and juice have two to three times the antioxidant activity of red wine and green tea, those antioxidant superstars.)
    But while many foods and spices are rich in polyphenols, pomegranate is one of the few that is a top source of several varieties – flavonoids, anthocyanins, ellagic acid, punicic acid, and many others. Hundreds of scientific studies confirm that this natural pharmacy of polyphenols may help prevent or treat a variety of diseases, including three leading killers: heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Smooth Sailing for Blood Vessels
    Heart attacks and strokes combined kill more North Americans than any other health problem. The cause: arteries leading to the heart and brain become clogged with plaque, a deadly stew of cholesterol and ruined cells, thickened by inflammation and oxidation. The medical name for this circulatory disaster: atherosclerosis. The name of a plant so powerful it can prevent and reverse the problem? Pomegranate. 
    Reversing arterial plaque. Israeli researchers studied 20 people with atherosclerosis in the carotid artery – the artery in the neck that supplies blood to the brain. (A blockage in this artery produces a stroke.) Ten drank pomegranate juice and 10 didn’t. After one year, those drinking the juice had a 30 percent decrease in arterial plaque, while those not drinking the juice had a 9 percent increase. The results were reported in Clinical Nutrition. 
    Researchers at the University of Chicago studied 189 people (ages 45 to 74) with one or more risk factors for heart disease, such as, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They divided them into two groups: one group drank eight ounces of pomegranate juice a day and the other didn’t. After one year, those in the study with the highest risk for heart disease – with the highest total cholesterol, highest LDL cholesterol, highest triglycerides, and highest level of several other risk factors – had a much slower growth rate of arterial plaque if they were in the group drinking pomegranate juice. The findings were in the American Journal of Cardiology. 

Reviving damaged hearts
    Doctors from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) studied 45 people (average age, 69) with heart disease. Nearly half had suffered heart attacks, most had high blood pressure, and nearly all had high cholesterol. They were all taking several drugs to battle heart disease, including cholesterol-lowering statins, blood thinners, and blood pressure drugs. The researchers divided them into two groups. For three months, one group drank eight ounces a day of pomegranate juice, while the other group drank a placebo juice.
    At the beginning and end of the three months, the doctors gave both groups a myocardial perfusion test – a type of “stress test” that uses a CAT scan to measure blood flow (ischemia) to the heart during exercise.
After three months, the group drinking pomegranate juice had a 17 percent increase in blood flow to the heart, while the placebo group had a decrease of 18 percent. And those are important test results: a study shows that the best predictor of whether or not a person with heart disease will have a heart attack is the amount of blood flow to the heart as measured by a myocardial perfusion test! 

Less angina
    The UCSF researchers also found that episodes of angina (intense chest pain) decreased by 50 percent in the pomegranate group, while increasing by 38 percent in the non-pomegranate group. The findings were reported in the American Journal of Cardiology. 

Increasing nitric oxide
    The delicate lining of the arteries is called the endothelium. There, a thin layer of endothelial cells pump out nitric oxide (NO), a compound that fights oxidation and inflammation, keeping arteries flexible and young. Some experts think that a low level of nitric oxide is the primary cause of atherosclerosis. Researchers from the University of Naples in Italy and UCLA conducted several studies testing the effect of pomegranate on nitric oxide. They found pomegranate juice was far more potent than Concord grape juice, blueberry juice, red wine, vitamin C, and vitamin E (all powerful antioxidants) at protecting nitric oxide against oxidative destruction.

Lower high blood pressure 
    Israeli researchers asked people with high blood pressure to drink a small amount of pomegranate juice every day. 
    After two weeks, they had a 5 percent drop in systolic blood pressure (the upper reading). They also had a 31 percent decrease in the activity of the enzyme (angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE) targeted by the pressure-lowering, ACE-inhibiting medications. 

How to Buy Pomegranate 
    The only time to enjoy fresh pomegranate seeds is when the fruit is in season, from October to January. The fruit is picked ripe and can range in size from an apple to a large orange. The largest and heaviest should give you the juiciest seeds. Look for fruit free of cracks and soft spots, with a bright skin color (which can vary from pink to red). 
    Pomegranates will stay fresh at room temperature for several weeks before drying out, but will retain their moisture better and longer in the refrigerator. They should stay fresh in the refrigerator for a month or longer. The seeds can be frozen and will keep for six to nine months. You can only find anardana in an Indian market or perhaps a specialty spice shop. Anardana (dried pomegranate seed) is available dried or ground. The dried seeds are dark red with a black tinge. They will keep indefinitely. Soak them in water to soften them. Ground seeds keep for a year or longer if stored in an airtight container away from moisture and heat. Find pomegranate molasses in Middle Eastern, Armenian, or Indian markets. The molasses is easy to keep and doesn’t need refrigeration. If it gets too thick, sit the bottle in hot water for a few minutes.

In the Kitchen with Pomegranate
    The inside of a pomegranate is mostly all seeds, which are layered in two chambers. The key to getting delicious seeds is to avoid the pulpy and bitter pith and connecting membranes. The easiest way to open the fruit and remove the seeds – and avoid stains – is to do it underwater at the kitchen sink. The first step is to put on an apron. Then start by placing the fruit on a paper towel. Make a single cut around the circumference using a sharp knife. Be careful not to cut deeper than the skin. Place the scored fruit in a large bowl filled with water and break it open while holding it underwater. Rub your fingers across the seeds to separate them from the yellow membrane. As they separate, the seeds will float to the top. Use a strainer to retrieve them and transfer to a bowl. To make juice, put the seeds in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Press the liquid through a strainer to remove the fiber. One medium pomegranate will provide about 1 cup of seeds and ½ cup of juice. You can sprinkle pomegranate seeds on almost any prepared food that would benefit from sweet flavor and crunchy texture.

Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, earned his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and did a postdoctoral fellowship in endocrinology at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. Since 1989, Dr. Aggarwal has been with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where he is currently professor of cancer research, biochemistry, immunology and experimental therapeutics.

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