Potent pomegranates

The pomegranate is an evocative symbol that appears on the Yom Tov (festival) table.

The brazen arrival of the pomegranate in the shop, with its glossy shades of golden orange and warm red, herald the onset of autumn in England, always a timely reminder that Rosh Hashana (New Year) is fast approaching. It is an evocative symbol that appears on the Yom Tov (festival) table exhorting us to match the number of our good deeds with the cascade of bejeweled seeds. Some believe that all pomegranates have exactly the same number of seeds, a mystical 613 corresponding exactly to that of the commandments cited in the Torah. But nature is never so obligingly reliable, and the last pomegranate I counted had a mere 435 seeds. The pomegranate is one of the seven fruits defining the bounty of the Land of Israel in Deuteronomy (8:8): A land of wheat, barley, grape, fig and pomegranate; a land of olive oil and date honey. And its glowing exterior pericarp, its hundreds of glistening arils, are used throughout Tanach and Talmud to conjure images of beauty (as in Song of Songs) and manifold blessings. Depictions of the fruit have long been found in Jewish architecture and design decorating the pillars of King Solomon's Temple and adorning robes of Priests. The fruit, botanically known as Punica granatum, is thought to have originated in the region of Iran and Afghanistan. "The Jews of Iraq, Iran and Syria are fond of using the sour pomegranate concentrate or molasses... Mixed with sugar, the result is a divine sweet and sour flavor," notes Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food. Today pomegranates are grown right across the world, but the largest producer of organic pomegranates is here in Israel at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, where farmer Eli Meron even raises his own owls to control the rodents which like to nibble on the fruits. The pomegranate is not only found in exotic recipes but also in ancient rituals and mythology. The Persians used pomegranates in Zoroastrian rituals, and legend tells of a heroic king, Isfandiyar, eating a pomegranate and becoming invincible. The fruit's mystical properties abound throughout world cultures. For Buddhists it is one of the three blessed fruits and was used by Buddha to cure the demon Hariti of her unpleasant habit of eating children. But the fruit's most potent symbol, with its innumerable seeds, is of fertility and regeneration. And so in Christianity the pomegranate appears in religious art symbolizing resurrection; in Chinese ceramics it represents fertility and abundance. A long-established heraldic symbol, the pomegranate appropriately appears on the coats of arms of the British Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It is also the preeminent symbol on the coat of arms adopted by the Royal College of Physicians in the middle of the sixteenth century. But the true nature of the pomegranate is perhaps alluded to in the Greek myth when Persephone, dragged by Hades into the underworld, eats a few pomegranate seeds and is damned to spend part of each year there, leaving the world above barren of crops for that period. No evocation of the association between pomegranates and fertility here. Perhaps here is a whisper of the belief of the contraceptive properties of the seeds a well documented use of the plant according to the writings of second-century Greek gynecologist Soranus of Ephesus. Galen, the renowned physician of the Roman world, also cites the use of pomegranate seeds for contraception; as do the famous Islamic physicians of the 9th and 10th centuries al-Razi (Rhazes) and ibn Sina (Avicenna). All myth and no substance? It seems not. In the latter part of the twentieth century, scientists demonstrated a marked reduction in fertility when extracts of pomegranate seeds are fed to rats, mice and guinea pigs. More importantly, modern scientific research has revealed a potential cornucopia of health-giving properties associated with the pomegranate. Much of this research has been pioneered by two scientists at the Technion in Haifa, Dr Ephraim Lansky and Professor Michael Aviram. The fascinating pomegranate research of Dr Ephraim Lansky also gives us an irresistible glimpse into the vagaries of scientific discovery. The early days of Lansky's research, about 13 years ago, began on his Haifa kitchen table while he was also learning Hebrew. He had come to Israel to pursue an interest in pomegranate research, encouraged by Professor Dan Palevitch, of the Department of Agriculture at the Hebrew University in Rehovot, a well-known figure in the field of herbal medicine in Israel. Dr Lansky collected sacks of pomegranates and removed those tiny ruby red arils by hand in his kitchen, separated the tiny white seeds embedded in them and then cold-pressed them to extract the oil a solitary kilogram of oil for every 500 kg of fruit. Dr Lansky took his pomegranate oil, fresh from the kitchen table, directly to the Technion, where he investigated its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties with Professor Ishak Neeman, Professor of Food Sciences. In 1999 they published a landmark paper, arguing that pomegranate extracts showed high anti-oxidant activity. This is the stuff of potential anti-cancer therapies. The same year Rimonest Ltd was launched as part of Israel's prestigious Technion incubator, receiving a start-up grant of $400,000 from the government's Ministry of Trade and Industry to investigate the hormone properties of pomegranate oil. But instead of studying only the oil, Professor Neeman suggested throwing in a little pomegranate juice. An anti-estrogenic effect was discovered. This was big news: these are the compounds that possibly prevent breast cancer. In the year 2000 Dr Lansky had related research in progress in twenty laboratories worldwide; from Japan and Korea, to the UK and throughout the US. The main conclusions of this research over the past five years confirm that pomegranate extracts show anti-cancer properties, especially with cells involved in breast cancer, prostate cancer and leukemia. So far all this work has been done in test tubes using human cells. There is major research ahead to confirm that pomegranates can confer all these benefits on the human body. Lansky finds the results so compelling that he has already joined forces with a nutraceutical company. But it is Professor Aviram at the Technion who set up the first clinical trial to study directly the effect of pomegranate juice on patients. His research focused on the condition known as hardening or narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis). His paper, published in 2004, demonstrated unequivocally that a daily glass of pomegranate juice can reverse this condition and thereby actually protect against cardiovascular disease. So let's raise a glass of pomegranate juice to a happy and healthy New Year.