Get set for a pomegranate frenzy. That’s because a couple of studies have suggested the fruit may have a role in treating breast cancer and in lowering the risk of heart disease. By the time the tabloids got through with their interpretation of the results, pomegranate juice had become the new wonder kid on the block. And, needless to say, pomegranate capsules are now featured in health food stores as cancer-preventatives and as treatments for menopause.
What did the researchers really find? That there are compounds in pomegranate juice that have estrogenic activity. In other words, they can alter the way that cells respond to the body’s own estrogen. This is certainly of great interest because more than two thirds of breast cancers are estrogen positive, meaning that the body’s estrogen stimulates the proliferation of tumor cells. Any substance that reduces such estrogenic stimulation is most welcome. And it seems that some of the polyphenols in pomegranate can do just that. They block the activity of an enzyme known as aromatase which is involved in the synthesis of estrogen. How did the scientists determine this? By studying the effect of pomegranate juice on breast cancer cells in the laboratory. They found that extracts of the seeds, which is what pomegranate juice really is, reduced the activity of 17-beta-estradiol, the estrogen of concern in breast cancer, by some 50%. And breast cancer cells which experienced this reduction in estrogen stimulation died with much greater frequency than normal cells. Of course this is a laboratory finding and is a long way away from showing that pomegranate juice has any effect on actual cancers in the body. There is a big difference between bathing cultured cancer cells in pomegranate juice in a Petri dish and drinking the juice. Nobody knows if the active ingredients can be absorbed from the digestive tract and if they have any chance of making it to the site of a tumor. But it seems a pretty good bet that pomegranate juice is not harmful, and may do some good.
Although the benefit for breast cancer may be a little iffy, pomegranate’s role as a heart disease preventative is on firmer footing. Israeli researchers investigated the effect of pomegranate juice on LDL cholesterol, or in common every day language, “bad cholesterol.” They found that the juice reduced the conversion of LDL into its most damaging form, known as oxidized LDL. This finding really may be more than a laboratory curiosity. Why? Because the researchers also found that when mice that were specially bred to develop hardened arteries were given pomegranate juice, the size of the lesions in their arteries was reduced by 44%. Basically then, while the hype about pomegranate juice may not be completely justified, there is something to it. A daily glass of eight ounces just may provide surprising benefits. Just don’t spill any of the juice on your clothes. Pomegranate stains are virtually impossible to get out!