The Jewel of fruits – Pomegranates
Health benefits and New Year traditions
“In Greek culture, the pomegranate holds much significance. It is a sign of luck, prosperity and fertility. It is also a sign of renewal and regeneration. Since the rituals that surround New Year’s usually involve ways to bring luck, it makes sense that the pomegranates are part of this.”
A friend of mine was here to celebrate the holiday season together and wanted to return home with some traditional gifts for her family. My immediate thought was a hand-blown glass pomegranate! Why a pomegranate you might ask! Why are all the Greek shops full of these wonderful fruits at this time of the year?
New Year’s celebrations in Greece include some customs and superstitions that may seem strange, but they date back for many years. The big difference in celebrations between Greece and other countries is that New Year’s Day is also a Christian holiday, and specifically Saint Vasilios day. Saint Vasilios is the Greek version of Santa Claus. And while the internationally known Santa delivers his presents on Christmas Eve, Saint Vasilios waits a few days and puts the presents under the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day.
This is the reason they cut the annual Vasilopita: a round cake that the head of the family ceremoniously cuts at the turn of the year. Each piece is designated to members of the family and the first three pieces are offered in order to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint Vasilios, while the fourth piece goes to the family home. The rest goes to family members in order of age. Inside the cake there is a hidden lucky coin.
“Not everything healthy need be green!”
You may have also seen an onion wrapped in bright red foil adorning Greek balconies – this is also a New Year tradition as this special onion, even though uprooted, will continue to grow new leaves and flowers long into the year.
Now getting back to the point of this article, the pomegranate is a symbol of abundance, fertility and good luck. In many areas of Greece they hang a pomegranate in their home in autumn. After the New Year’s Eve church service, they smash the pomegranate at the door while wishing “Happy New Year!” The more seeds that are scattered at the foot of the front door of the home, the more luck that that household will have for the year. If very few seeds are scattered, the luck won’t be as much as it would be if a lot of seeds came out.
Ancient and Modern Greece
The pomegranate is an ancient red fruit, which has been the symbol of fertility, prosperity and regeneration for thousands of years in Greece and in Greek mythology. The Greeks were familiar with the fruit far before it was introduced to Rome via Carthage, and it figures in multiple myths and artworks. In Ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate was known as the ‘fruit of the dead’, and believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis.
Pomegranate trees were also mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, where they grow on the island of Scheria or Phaeacia in the gardens of King Alcinous. Furthermore Theophrastus and Hippocrates also refer to the fruit for its healing properties. The most renowned myth associated with the pomegranate fruit is the one of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. According to the myth, Hades offered the fruit to Persefone in order to seal their eternal bond. The pomegranate was also closely associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries as priests wore wreaths made of twigs from pomegranate trees during these ceremonies.
“The pomegranate is an ancient red fruit, which has been the symbol of fertility, prosperity and regeneration for thousands of years in Greece and in Greek mythology.”
Lots of archaeological finds prove that the pomegranate fruit was known in the Mediterranean area in antiquity as it was reflected on ancient art. On Milos Island in Phylakopi, pomegranates were painted on urns. At Akrotiri on Santorini Island excavations brought to light urns with motifs of the pomegranate fruit. On Crete Island Minoan findings also carry the fruit shape in paintings (17th century BC) where in Mycenae a beautiful necklace depicts golden pomegranates motifs. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens hosts the brass pomegranate discovered at the Acropolis.
In modern times, the pomegranate still holds strong symbolic meanings for the Greeks. When one buys a new home, it is conventional for a house guest to bring as a first gift a pomegranate, which is placed under/near the ikonostasi (home altar) of the house, as a symbol of abundance, fertility and good luck. When Greeks commemorate their dead, they make kollyva as offerings which consist of boiled wheat, mixed with sugar and decorated with pomegranate – a symbol of the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom. Pomegranate decorations for the home are very common in Greece.
Elixir of health and beauty
Pomegranate is nutritious and rich in sugars, vitamins A, B, C, minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium and iron, and has more antioxidants than red wine or green tea. This miraculous fruit is also a unique natural cosmetic. Well known Greek cosmetic companies, who base their products on natural ingredients from Greek motherland, use pomegranate in many products for skin care and anti-aging properties. Today, pomegranate juice is being studied for its many health benefits. It may help with cancer prevention, immune support, and fertility.
Benefits of Pomegranate
Here are some of the potential benefits of pomegranate.
- Antioxidants: Pomegranates have been eaten throughout history for their health benefits. Nowadays, the juice of this fruit is a popular part of healthy diets. Pomegranate seeds get their vibrant red hue from polyphenols. These chemicals are powerful antioxidants. Pomegranate juice contains higher levels of antioxidants than most other fruit juices. It also has three times more antioxidants than red wine and green tea. The antioxidants in pomegranate juice can help remove free radicals, protect cells from damage, and reduce inflammation.
- Vitamin C: The juice of a single pomegranate has more than 40% of your daily requirement of vitamin C. Vitamin C can be broken down when pasteurised, so opt for homemade or fresh pomegranate juice to get the most of the nutrient.
- Cancer prevention: Pomegranate juice recently made a splash when researchers found that it may help stop the growth of prostate cancer cells. Despite multiple studies on the effects of the juice on prostate cancer, results are still preliminary. While there haven’t been long-term studies with humans that prove that pomegranate juice prevents cancer or reduces the risk, adding it to your diet certainly can’t hurt. There have been encouraging results in studies so far, and bigger studies are now being done.
- Alzheimer’s disease protection: The antioxidants in the juice and their high concentration are believed to stall the progress of Alzheimer disease and protect memory.
- Digestion: Pomegranate juice can reduce inflammation in the gut and improve digestion. It may be beneficial for people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory bowel diseases. While there are conflicting beliefs and research on whether pomegranate juice helps or worsens diarrhea, most doctors recommend avoiding it until you are feeling better and your symptoms have subsided.
- Anti-inflammatory: Pomegranate juice is a powerful anti-inflammatory because of its high concentration of antioxidants. It can help reduce inflammation throughout the body and prevent oxidative stress and damage.
- Arthritis: Flavonols in pomegranate juice may help block the inflammation that contributes to osteoarthritis and cartilage damage. The juice is currently being studied for its potential effects on osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other types of arthritis and
- Heart disease: Pomegranate juice is in the running as the most heart-healthy juice. It appears to protect the heart and arteries. Small studies have shown that the juice improves blood flow and keeps the arteries from becoming stiff and thick. It may also slow the growth of plaque and build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. But pomegranate may react negatively with blood pressure and cholesterol medications like statins. Be sure to talk with your doctor before indulging in the juice or taking a pomegranate extract supplement.
- Blood pressure: Drinking pomegranate juice daily may also help lower systolic blood pressure. A comprehensive review of randomised controlled trials stated that it would be beneficial for heart health to include pomegranate juice daily.
- Antiviral: Between the vitamin C and other immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin E, pomegranate juice can prevent illness and fight off infection. Pomegranates have also been shown to be antibacterial and antiviral in lab tests. They are being studied for their effects on common infections and viruses.
- Vitamin-rich: In addition to vitamin C and vitamin E, pomegranate juice is a good source of folate, potassium, and vitamin K. Whether you decide to add pomegranate to your daily diet or just sip on it every now and then, check the label to ensure that it is 100% pure pomegranate juice, without added sugar. Or, juice it fresh.
- Memory: Drinking 8 ounces of pomegranate juice a daily may improve learning and memory, according to a recent study.
- Sexual performance and fertility: Pomegranate juice’s concentration of antioxidants and ability to impact oxidative stress make it a potential fertility aid. Oxidative stress has been shown to cause sperm dysfunction and decrease fertility in women. The juice has also been shown to help reduce oxidative stress in the placenta. But researchers don’t yet know the exact benefits this may provide. Drinking pomegranate juice can also increase testosterone levels in men and women, one of the main hormones behind sex drive.
- Endurance and sports performance: Move over, tart cherry and beet juice. Pomegranate juice may be the new sport performance enhancer. The juice may help reduce soreness and improve strength recovery. It also decreases oxidative damage caused by exercise.
- Diabetes: Pomegranate was traditionally used as a remedy for diabetes in the Middle East and India. While much is still unknown about the effects of pomegranate on diabetes, it may help decrease insulin resistance and lower blood sugar.
“Pomegranate juice contains more than 100 phytochemicals. The pomegranate fruit has been used for thousands of years as medicine.”
Production in Greece
India and Iran are the largest producers of pomegranates worldwide. Good commercial-quality pomegranates come from Turkey, Spain, Israel, Morocco, Peru and the United States (California and Arizona), among other countries. The production of Greece is not enough for consumption and considerable quantities of fruits are imported from Turkey and Spain. Not until recently, fruits were used almost exclusively for family consumption, for cooking different dishes, jams or pastry products. Together with the development of the manufacturing industry, in recent years, the tendency is to highly increase the areas cultivated with pomegranate and the production obtained will get to the level of hundreds of thousands of tonnes.
A Greek exporter of pomegranate oil says that he cannot make enough product to satisfy the current world demand for the oil of this fruit. Stefanos Kassidis recently told AMNA that the nation of France pays him 1 euro per 1 millilitre of oil extracted from his pomegranate seeds. “Essentially, the oil extracted from the seed is the ‘gold’ part of the fruit,” he explains, adding that “the most potent part of it – is a foundational, raw material in the production of cancer-fighting medicines and beauty products.” “But the oil extract is only exported to France, and it’s not enough,” he notes ruefully, as “you need 1,000 tonnes of pomegranates to produce 400 kilos of oil. It’s precious, that’s why even 1 millilitre costs one euro.” As production demands rise, Greece has a great opportunity to claim part of this important market, especially since pomegranates have always featured largely both in ancient Greek mythology and in popular tradition.