As its name suggests, pomegranate seed oil is sourced from seeds found within the fruit of the pomegranate tree (Punical granatum). Within each pomegranate fruit are several compartments, separated by a white layer of spongy tissue. Each compartment of the fruit is packed with numerous tiny red sacs, which are semi-transparent and filled with juicy pulp – a single white or red seed can be found within each sac.
Origins of Pomegranate Seed Oil
The pomegranate originates from a region encompassing modern-day Iran through to the Himalayas. Pomegranate farming is by no means a recent development – the plant has been naturalized and cultivated since ancient times, in both northern India and the Mediterranean region. Fruit production is seasonal, lasting approximately 3 to 4 months in late autumn and early winter. The spread and cultivation of the pomegranate in other parts of the world was largely facilitated by Spanish settlers, who first introduced the fruit to certain areas of the United States. Today, it is cultivated in many dry regions in the world, including parts of the Middle East, Africa, America, India, Asia and the Mediterranean Basin. Of all these countries, Iran is the primary producer of pomegranates, accounting for a whopping 47% of world production.
Consistency and Make-up
There is a fairly large number of seeds in each fruit, which take up between 4-10% of the fruit weight depending on the cultivar. In turn, the oil extracted from the seed only measures to between 12% and 20% of the seed’s weight. Thus, the maximum average amount of essential oil extracted per fruit comes to a scant 2% of the fruit’s total weight, making pomegranate seed oil quite an expensive commodity. The various benefits of the oil are mainly due to its high levels of punicic acid, which is a type of fatty acid; pomegranate seed oil is also rich in vitamin C, omega-6 fatty acids, oleic acid and other active components.
Being one of the oldest edible fruits discovered by man, the pomegranate fruit has been used extensively in many traditional remedies; however, pomegranate seed oil and its uses appear to be a fairly recent discovery. The oil is dense and heavy in texture, resembling the consistency of glycerine but is nowhere near as sticky. It is bright yellow in colour, being slightly cloudy in its raw form and clear in its refined form; it also has a faint nutty or fruity smell. Depending on individual interpretation, pomegranate seed oil can also smell somewhat rancid.
How is Pomegranate Seed Oil Made?
Pomegranate seed oil is produced via the cold press method, where the seeds are crushed in a press to release the oil without applying heat. Firstly, ripe pomegranates are harvested off the plants, and the seeds are extracted before being sun-dried to get rid of excess moisture. At that point, they are usually a pale yellow in colour, and greatly resemble sunflower seeds. The seeds are then cold-pressed at room temperature (usually about 28C), with the resulting oil forced through fine filters. This removes particles and remnants of the crushed seed that could have found its way into the oil. Once purified, the complete pomegranate seed oil is stored in oil drums, ready for delivery.
More oil can be obtained from the seeds by applying heat to the process, as heat can break down the seed structure to release oil better than physical force can. However, heat may damage the beneficial components of the oil, and it would lose much of its nutritional content and thus its value. For this reason, the best way to extract pomegranate seed oil is by cold-pressing, as this way the enzymes and vitamins found in the oil can be preserved. The fatty acid composition of the oil is also greatly affected by the method of extraction – aside from the cold press method, other methods include solvent extraction using chemical additives, or supercritical CO2 extraction which uses dry ice in the place of chemical solvents.
Thus far no adverse effect has been associated with the use of pomegranate seed oil, hence it is considered safe for use both internally or externally; however, the oil is very concentrated and should not be consumed in large amounts. Some people may experience allergic reactions and sensitivity to the fruit in general, which could lead to itching, swelling, a runny nose, and difficulty breathing. It may also result in complications when taken in conjunction with other medications, thus it is advised to consult with a doctor before using the oil.
History of the Pomegranate
The word “pomegranate” originates from the Middle French words “pomme garnete”, which means ‘seeded apple’. The pomegranate has also been dubbed as “nature’s power fruit” and “the Fruit of Life”, likely due to its many health benefits. The pomegranate is famous as it has been featured extensively in the mythology and symbolism of many different cultures.
Almost every part of the pomegranate plant has been put to use in some way since ancient times – aside from being a delicious food item, the pomegranate was used traditionally as a medicinal fruit. It has been cultivated for thousands of years, and based on evidence from excavations, it is believed that the use of pomegranate for its beneficial properties dates all the way back to the early Bronze Age, making it one of the earliest fruits cultivated for this reason.
Traditional healers have experimented with everything from its flowers and bark, to its roots and even the rind of the fruit in traditional remedies and cosmetic recipes, as each part of the plant has its own unique properties. Indian Ayurvedic remedies called for pomegranate to combat fever, and ancient Egyptians consumed the fruit to treat intestinal worms. In Greek medicine, pomegranate flowers were used as a treatment for what is now known as diabetes; the root and bark of the tree were also used to heal bleeding, dysentery, and ulcers. The pomegranate was also known to function as a blood tonic and to ease symptoms of diarrhea. It was believed that Helen of Troy used pomegranate juice as rouge, in addition to drinking it for its health benefits.
Pomegranate fruits have been highly symbolic throughout much of history. It is a fruit of legend, being directly referenced to in various spiritual tales, and features heavily in Greek mythology. One of the most famous Greek tales involving the pomegranate is the tale of Hades and Persephone – the Goddess of Spring, Persephone, was abducted by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, to be his wife.
Persephone’s mother Demeter searched desperately for her and neglected the earth in her grief – crops withered and famine struck the land, and thus Zeus intervened, forcing Hades to return Persephone to her rightful place. But Hades tricked Persephone into consuming pomegranate seeds, dooming her to be bound to his realm, as eating the food of the Underworld would permanently bind one to it. So, Persephone could spend eight months in the Overworld, where plants would grow and blossom in her presence; but she was forced to return to the Underworld for the remaining four months, during which the realm descended into a cold, barren winter. Eventually, due to this myth, the pomegranate came to symbolize the continuous cycle of life and death.
The pomegranate was held sacred by many of the world’s major religions and nations, which include Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, Hinduism, and ancient Middle Eastern philosophies. In the Holy Quran, pomegranate has been described as “The Fruit of Life”, believed to have sprung from the Garden of Paradise; in Christian art, it is a symbol of the resurrection and of the promised eternal life. The things that the pomegranate symbolizes are many and varied – royalty, hope, sanctity, chastity, spiritual fruitfulness and even invincibility in battle for the ones who consumed it. In China, it is widely seen as a symbol of beauty, fertility and abundance, representing well-wishes for one to have blessed days ahead. As it expresses the message of “May you have as many children as there are seeds!”, the pomegranate was popular in some countries as a present to newlyweds.
Uses of Pomegranate Seed Oil
Being an oil-based fruit extract, pomegranate seed oil is popular for use as a skin moisturizer, and can be found in a range of cosmetic products including shampoos, soaps, and salves. It is often used as a component in products toted to be ‘natural’, and is claimed to revitalize dull, dry skin, improving its appearance and giving it a healthy, youthful glow. This is supported by evidence from studies, showing that pomegranate seed oil stimulates the production of new skin cells which renews the skin’s outer layer. It is also able to penetrate the skin deeply, due to its molecular structure that makes it highly compatible for skin absorption. This allows the oil to easily channel nutrients into cells, accelerating its rejuvenating effects, in addition to supplying moisture and protecting the skin from dehydration. One of the reasons pomegranate seed oil is convenient and popular for use is that it is a “dry” oil, as it absorbs readily into skin without leaving a greasy residue or giving the skin an oily look.
Boosts the Immune System
Pomegranate seed oil is rich in antioxidants in the form of phytochemicals and vitamins. Antioxidants combat the activity of free radicals, which are unstable molecules formed by uneven breaking of chemical bonds. In order to achieve the needed stability, the free radicals “attack” other nearby compounds, damaging them in reactions in an attempt to steal the needed electrons. The chain reactions that occur due to free radicals can cause widespread cellular damage, premature aging and a multitude of diseases such as joint inflammation, diabetes, atherosclerosis and even cancer. Antioxidants prevent this chain reaction by donating the needed electrons to free radicals, stopping them in their tracks. This helps to reduce oxidative stress in the skin, lessens wrinkles, improves collagen formation for supple skin, and helps the immune system fight off diseases.
Pomegranate seeds also have a high nutritional value, and contain lots of dietary fibre. It is rich in micronutrients such as potassium and magnesium, and vitamins B1, B2 and C, which is why it is a good idea to consume the edible seeds along with the pulp to take full advantage of its benefits. The significant levels of vitamin C contained within the oil can give the body’s immune system a boost if taken internally. It also works well when applied topically, as it assists the skin in resisting airborne pathogens from entering the body.
The moisturizing effects of pomegranate seed oil can also be applied to hair by massaging small amounts into the scalp, which serves to stimulate blood flow and eliminate dandruff. In addition to giving hair a lustrous, healthy shine, hair treatment with pomegranate seed oil can strengthen hair, help counter hair loss and stimulate the growth of new hair from healthy follicles.
Pomegranate seed oil possesses anti-inflammatory properties, making it a highly useful product as many common ailments are a direct result of inflammation in various parts of the body. The oil is most often applied topically on the affected area to reduce swelling and eliminate pain, but can also be taken internally in small amounts. Skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and acne have been shown to improve following topical treatment with pomegranate seed oil, and symptomatic relief has also been reported by people suffering from arthritis, joint disorders, headaches, hemorrhoids and many other conditions.
How this works is that pomegranate seed oil has antibacterial and antioxidant effects, and helps to eliminate the bacteria causing the undesired condition, plus restore the oil balance on the skin. Taken internally, it helps to regulate the body’s inflammation response occurring on the cellular level, which can be caused by many things including stress, having a poor diet, or ingestion of environmental toxins. It also promotes regeneration of new skin tissue, helping the body to heal from bacterial colonization and the effects of inflammation.
Improves Metabolic Health
Pomegranate seed oil when taken orally acts as a stimulant, which helps to support and maintain the body’s metabolism. This can help in weight loss as it may reduce fat deposition in the body, increase fat metabolism, and improve blood circulation, helping people who are working towards a healthy, active lifestyle. Studies have proven the weight loss effects of the oil, but its mechanism has yet to be determined. It also helps in dieting regimes by increasing the oxidation of carbohydrates, leading to an enhanced carb metabolism. Having an improved circulatory system contributes toward the prevention of chronic disease, improves the immune system, and speeds up the healing process.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
The phytochemical and unsaturated fatty acid content in pomegranate seed oil can contribute greatly to a healthier heart, reducing the chances of heart attacks, strokes and atherosclerosis, which refers to the formation of fatty deposits in arteries that can lead to high blood pressure. The oil does this by lowering “bad” cholesterol (LDL, or Low-Density Lipoprotein) levels in the body, which takes up more space, leading to higher possibilities of blockages; it increases “good” cholesterol (HDL, or High-Density Lipoprotein), which is more tightly packed and thus does not pose a large health risk like LDL does. Pomegranate seed oil also improves blood circulation and lowers blood pressure, and these effects are most likely due to the oil’s antioxidant qualities.
Based on evidence from research, pomegranate seed oil has been observed to have a significant effect in preventing insulin resistance, by increasing the body’s insulin production and sensitivity to the hormone. Insulin is the hormone that tells the body it is full, and counteracts hunger – having an insulin resistance means that the body does not know when to stop eating, possibly leading to obesity and a worsening of conditions for people struggling with Type II diabetes.
Research is still ongoing as to how the oil can be incorporated into medicine for this purpose, and is still in the early stages, but the findings thus far are promising. Pomegranate seed oil is also able to enhance glucose tolerance, allowing the body to better manage excess sugar levels in the blood.
The main active component in pomegranate seed oil is punicic acid, an omega-5 fatty acid which has a variety of pharmacological properties. It is present in large amounts (up to 80%) within the oil. One of its most notable effects is its ability to combat certain types of cancer, due to its cytotoxic and anti-tumour properties. By chemically inhibiting the growth and replication of cancerous cells, punicic acid can help to restrict the spread of cancer through the body. Colon cancers and hormone-related cancers such as prostate and breast cancer are especially susceptible to punicic acid, with studies showing health improvements in patients who consumed pomegranates or their derivatives. Pomegranate seed oil is currently being researched as a possible alternative to chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer.
Pomegranate seed oil helps relieve a huge variety of health conditions in addition to the ones mentioned above – it has been known to combat osteoporosis and pancreatitis, possibly due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms of the oil. It also supports and maintains the body’s hormonal balance, as it contains a human-compatible form of phytoestrogen that functions in both men and women. Pomegranate seed oil can help reduce neurotoxicity and liver damage, again possibly due to its antioxidative effects.
While not commonly found in the market, pomegranate seed oil is also used for its scent in aromatherapy and diffusers, although its popularity is somewhat lacking in this field as its aroma may often be interpreted as rancid and found to be unpleasant.