Pomegranate: superfood or fad?

Pomegranate: superfood or fad?
Pomegranate: superfood or fad?

Pomegranate and its distinctive ruby-red jewel-like seeds have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.

The Middle Eastern fruit is claimed to be effective against heart disease, high blood pressure, inflammation and some cancers, including prostate cancer.

Pomegranate is a good source of fibre. It also contains vitamins A, C and E, iron and other antioxidants (notably tannins).

We’ve teamed up with the British Dietetic Association (BDA) to examine whether the health claims made about the fruit are supported by the evidence.

The evidence on pomegranates

Can pomegranate strengthen bones?

2013 study found evidence that pomegranate strengthened bones and helped prevent osteoporosis. The catch was the study involved mice, not humans.

While the biology of mice and humans are surprisingly similar, we can never be sure that these results will be applicable to us.

Does pomegranate juice slow prostate cancer progress?

One small study from 2006 found that drinking a daily 227ml (8oz) glass of pomegranate juice significantly slowed the progress of prostate cancer in men with recurring prostate cancer. This was a well-conducted study, but more are needed to support these findings.

more recent study from 2013 looked at whether giving men pomegranate extract tablets prior to surgery to remove cancerous tissue from the prostate would reduce the amount of tissue that needed to be removed. The results were not statistically significant, meaning they could have been down to chance.

Can pomegranate reduce carotid artery stenosis?

A good-quality study from 2004 on patients with carotid artery stenosis (narrowed arteries) found that a daily 50ml (1.7oz) glass of pomegranate juice over three years reduced the damage caused by cholesterol in the artery by almost half, and also cut cholesterol build-up. However, these effects are not clearly understood and the study did not say what the results mean for conditions such as stroke.

Is heart disease prevented by pomegranates?

A well-conducted trial from 2005 on 45 patients with coronary heart disease demonstrated that a daily 238ml (8.4oz) glass of pomegranate juice administered over three months resulted in improved blood flow to the heart and a lower risk of heart attack. The study did not say what the results mean for conditions such as heart attacks, and with such a small trial the positive results reported could be down to chance.

The dietitian’s verdict on pomegranates

Alison Hornby, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson, says the evidence around the health benefits of pomegranates are inconclusive.

She says: “Research suggests there may be a benefit, but we’ve not shown it yet. The studies that have found an improvement in existing health conditions were very small and more investigation into the role pomegranate plays in these improvements is needed.

“A 150ml glass of pomegranate juice counts as one of your 5 A Day. Make sure to avoid brands with added sugar. You could also add pomegranate seeds to cold dishes and salads. It’s a healthy and appetising way to increase the nutritional value of your meal.”

What are superfoods? This is eye opening


Superfoods
Superfoods

What are superfoods?

We examine the evidence behind the health claims of 10 of the most popular so-called superfoods.

So-called, because there is no official definition of a “superfood” and the EU has banned health claims on packaging unless supported by scientific evidence.

But that hasn’t stopped many food brands from funding academics to research the health benefits of their product.

The superfood trend exploits the fact that healthy lifestyle choices, including diet, can reduce our risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and cancer.

The food industry wants to persuade us that eating some foods can slow down the ageing process, lift depression, boost our physical ability, and even our intelligence.

Many of us want to believe that eating a single fruit or vegetable containing a certain antioxidant will zap a diseased cell.

The problem is that most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state.

Garlic, for example, contains a nutrient alleged to help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. But you’d have to eat up to 28 cloves a day to match the doses used in the lab – something no researcher has yet been brave enough to try.

Foods that have been elevated to superfood status in recent years include those rich in antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, flavanoids and selenium) and omega-3 fatty acids.

Antioxidants are chemicals thought to protect against the harmful effects of free radicals, which are chemicals naturally produced in every living cell and known to cause cell damage.

However, evidence about this and other health benefits of antioxidants is inconclusive. In a review of the scientific evidence in 2011 (PDF, 188kb), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found no evidence that the antioxidant action on free radicals observed in the lab was of any benefit to human health.

On the other hand, some research suggests that certain antioxidant supplements may be harmful (PDF, 2.72Mb).

While the concept of a “miracle food” remains a fantasy, it’s pretty well-established that obesity and alcohol are the two most common causes of major long-term illness and increased risk of premature death.

Importance of a balanced diet

Diet plays an important role in our health, but there is concern that too much focus on individual foods may encourage unhealthy eating.

“No food, including those labelled ‘superfoods’, can compensate for unhealthy eating,” explains Alison Hornby, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

“If people mistakenly believe they can ‘undo’ the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a superfood, they may continue making routine choices that are unhealthy and increase their risk of long-term illness.”

Dietitians avoid the term “superfood” and prefer to talk of “super diets”, where the emphasis is on a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods.

There is good evidence that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of some chronic diseases and increase life expectancy.

This diet includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, olive oil and legumes, and less meat and dairy foods than the typical Western diet.

Hornby says: “When it comes to keeping healthy, it’s best not to concentrate on any one food in the hope it will work miracles.

“All unprocessed food from the major food groups could be considered ‘super’. All these foods are useful as part of a balanced diet.

“You should eat a variety of foods, as described by the eatwell plate, to ensure you get enough of the nutrients your body needs. Focusing on getting your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is a perfect way to start.”

We’ve teamed up with the BDA to look at the best available research to see if the health claims of 10 popular “superfoods” add up. Click on the foods listed below to see the evidence: