The pomegranate makes an odd target for a mighty effort at law enforcement. It’s been a prized food since ancient times and has long been said to have medicinal properties. But somehow it’s become the topic of a major controversy.
And yet it’s just a fruit. You’d think the government has more important things to do.
The pomegranate is native to Persia and grows on small trees. Pomegranate orchards have long been sprinkled throughout the Mediterranean, southern Europe, and large parts of central, south and southeast Asia.
Pomegranates are also grown in parts of California and Arizona, mainly for juice production. As you’ve probably noticed, pomegranate juice has become popular among fans of alternative health thanks to the antioxidants and polyphenols it contains.
But, because of this, pomegranates have caught the attention of some big government groups, and they don’t like what they see.
Fun to eat and drink? You decide. . .
Pomegranate juice has been used as part of the Ayurveda system of medicine throughout India for thousands of years. Not so in the U.S. and Canada, where it just hit wide distribution in 2002 thanks to a marketing push from pomegranate growers.
The juice comes from the pulp around pomegranate arils, those ruby red seed casings found inside the fruit. The whole fruit is about the size of a large apple and you have to cut it in halves or quarters to pry out the little red beads — the arils — that are fit to eat. The rind is useless as far as I know. It’s about like spongy packing material you’d use to mail something breakable.
The parts you can eat — the arils — are way too sweet for me, but there are people who like them. Eaten fresh, they’re about like candy and after a few I’ve had enough. The arils contain the pomegranate polyphenols (chemical substances) which are mostly hydrolysable tannins.
Tannins are the things that cause a dry, puckery feeling in your mouth (you may know it from drinking red wine, but it’s also common when you drink straight pomegranate juice).
Two major types of tannins in pomegranate juice are ellagitannins and punicalagins. Punicalagins are unique to pomegranates and, according to lab experiments, have profound free-radical scavenging (antioxidant) abilities.2
Besides the tannins, pomegranate juice gives adults 16% of their daily vitamin C requirements. It’s also an excellent source of potassium and vitamin B.
Frankly, for taste and convenience I’m more excited by an incredible new antioxidant discovery called Seanol, an extract from various types of sea algae. Dr. Robert Rowen, one of our loyal supporters, brought it to my attention — I’d never heard about it — but after hearing what he has to say I sure want to learn more. The early research suggests it may be one of the most exciting new supplements in years. I’m a long-time fan of green algae products (I take spirulina), so I’m not surprised that researchers are making new discoveries all the time about the benefits of algae.
But pomegranates are a fine and healthy addition to your diet, too. . .
Anti-Cancer Benefits of Pomegranates
Like a lot of fruits and vegetables, some pretty big claims have been made about all the things pomegranates can do for you. And like many such claims, there aren’t many properly controlled and randomized studies.
But there are a few. Preliminary lab research shows pomegranate juice is effective in cutting heart disease risk factors and in lowering blood pressure. It also seems to have antibacterial benefits.
Along with that, a study conducted back in 2002 showed extracts from the pomegranate can inhibit the production of breast cancer cells.1 The study was published by the Journal of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment and showed pomegranates have distinct chemopreventive potential when it comes to breast cancer.
Specifically, the polyphenols found in pomegranates inhibited aromatase activity by 60-80%. This effectively blockaded the body’s active manufacture of estrogen (a process called biosynthesis).
This is significant. Aromatase is an enzyme that plays a key role in the biosynthesis of estrogen, and estrogen is the key hormone involved in the development of breast cancer. Blocking aromatase means less androgen gets converted to estrogen. If an acid in pomegranates can help block aromatase, that’s a very good thing — especially because 75% of breast cancer is fed by estrogen.
Researchers believe pomegranates will be most beneficial in preventing breast cancer rather than treating it, based largely on the fact that pomegranate compounds are weaker than pharmaceutical drugs that inhibit aromatase.3
That 2002 study also showed that polyphenols from fermented pomegranate juice inhibited 47% of cancerous lesion formations induced by certain carcinogens. The findings were significant enough to warrant further study on the chemopreventive and therapeutic applications of pomegranates. I’m not sure where one would buy fermented pomegranate juice, but it’s an interesting finding.
Recent Government Attack on Pomegranates
So, how did the government get involved in attacking a harmless fruit with medicinal properties?
Basically, marketers and manufacturers of pomegranate juice have been citing this evolving research on the health benefits of pomegranates. POM Wonderful, the largest U.S. promoter of pomegranate juice, is one such marketer.
The Food and Drug Administration took notice of this at the beginning of the year and actually issued a warning letter to POM Wonderful, accusing the company of making illegal health claims about the anti-disease benefits of pomegranates.
The letter to POM Wonderful claims the company committed “serious violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”5 The FDA says the company promotes its juice in such a way that classifies that juice as a drug, based on the fact that it’s marketed as something for use “in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” 5
Here’s the thing. The POM Wonderful website prints its web address on the labels of the juice bottles it sells. If consumers visit the website, they’re able to access various scientific studies that highlight ways pomegranates may protect against health problems.
Apparently the legal issue lies in the commercial use of scientific publications to promote a product. The FDA gets hot under the collar if the reference to a study “implies treatment or prevention of a disease.”5 Merely by publishing these studies from academic journals on its website and letting consumers read them and make up their own minds, a food marketer can be said to be asserting the product can be used “in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” In essence, the FDA says the marketer is using the articles as an ad for its product.
In its letter to POM Wonderful, the FDA cites various places on the company’s website where it feels publications are being used as marketing tools for pomegranate juice. Because the publications highlight the use of pomegranate juice to treat and prevent disease, it’s clear evidence (to the FDA, anyway) “of your product’s intended use as a drug.” 5
The FDA concluded its letter to POM Wonderful by saying pomegranate juice is not “generally recognized as safe and effective” for the various uses POM Wonderful outlines on its website. This makes it a drug, says the FDA, and in the U.S., drugs can’t be marketed legally without an approved New Drug Application.
To top it all off, the letter finishes by saying POM Wonderful products are marketed for conditions “not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners.” In other words, we’re not smart enough to select foods and supplements to protect ourselves from heart disease and cancer. We’re all supposed to trust every ounce of our health, diagnosis, and treatment to doctors.
Sort of like we trusted the banking system to government-supervised experts and oil drilling to government-supervised experts. But I digress.
As you can probably guess, I disagree with the whole idea.
Bottom Line: It’s Up to Us to Take Charge of Our Health
So here we have a fruit with obvious health benefits that have been celebrated in other cultures for thousands of years … and it’s under threat because juice manufacturers point out articles published by unrelated parties that document those health benefits?
If we waited for all healthful foods and supplements to be “generally recognized as safe and effective” by the FDA, we wouldn’t be able to consume most of the foods in our stores.
Plus, there’s the flip side of the FDA’s nutty policies — the stuff they consider safe that’s really not. Conventionally grown peaches are considered safe to eat, yet they’re loaded with the highest level of pesticides of any food available. Then you’ve got drugs officially deemed safe and effective by the FDA, like Vioxx, that get recalled for deadly dangers like increasing the chance of heart attacks and strokes.
And, here’s an ironic twist. While the FDA, housed under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tells us to be cautious about the pomegranate juice “drug,” the National Institutes of Health, also housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, is on a mission to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables because of their cancer-preventive properties.
Even the website for the National Cancer Institute (run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health), says pomegranate juice is “a natural juice … with antioxidant, … and chemopreventive activities” and goes on to talk about the benefits of pomegranate flavonoids in promoting tumor cell death.4
If I were to link you to the same journal articles the pomegranate marketers linked to on their website, the FDA would give me no problem at all because I’m not selling pomegranate juice. But a company that sells the juice can’t link you to the articles without having their juice classified as a drug. Potentially their brand of the juice could be forced off the shelves and they could be subjected to heavy fines.
The best thing to do, in my opinion, is just stay informed as well as you can. While the government works to get its priorities straight, you can stay abreast of what really makes a difference in treating cancer and promoting good health.