The pomegranate hits the peak of popularityby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Some people like it ground up in sausage. Others use it to condition their hair. Starbucks even sells it in Frappuccino form.
It is the pomegranate. And it's one of the most popular pieces of produce out there these days.
Last year, the marketplace welcomed over 450 new pomegranate based products -- everything from salad dressing to shaving cream. And the pomegranate parade shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Just this month, the candy company Jelly Belly released a pomegranate-flavored jelly bean.
"Our marketing people in California brought it to us first," says Bill Kelly, vice chairman of Jelly Belly. "I was a little bit like, 'Well, I don't know about this.' And I tried it and I loved it so I said, 'Let's go with it.'"
Kelly thinks pomegranate just might be the perfect addition to a candy line that includes flavors like caramel corn and cafe latte.
"Pomegranate's just become a very trendy flavor," says Kelly. "And, of course, you know, we're very trendy."
The pomegranate may be at the peak of popularity in the United States. But it's been an integral part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine for centuries. In fact, the pomegranate was one of the very first fruits cultivated by humans.
The Prophet Mohammad believed, by eating it, his followers could purge their systems of evil and hatred. Egyptians buried it with their dead to ensure safe passage to the next world. And many scholars say it was a pomegranate -- not an apple -- that Eve was offered in the Garden of Eden.
"You can't resist it," says Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the public radio program The Splendid Table. "It's this incredible coral red. The outside of it looks almost like a beautifully tooled piece of polished, tinted leather. And when you open it up, it looks like someone has collected rubies. It's a sexy fruit."
Say you want to find out just how a fruit becomes a trend. Lynne Rossetto Kasper is the one to ask. Many believe America's obsession with the pomegranate was sparked by the seemingly endless stream of glowing health reports. There were the researchers who crowned the pomegranate a super-fruit, promoting it as a powerful antioxidant with the ability to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. And there were the academic studies that showed pomegranate juice can slow down prostate cancer in mice and maybe even decrease the risk of Alzheimer's disease in humans.
But, according to Rossetto Kasper, promises of better health aren't what initially draw people to a food.
"People can tell you something is healthy until the cows come home," says Rossetto Kasper. "It has to be something that has a certain amount of cachet to it. Then we wanna to do it."
She says a food trend usually begins with one food scholar. In the case of the pomegranate, Rossetto Kasper believes that one person was Paula Wolfert. The gourmet author wrote a book about Eastern Mediterranean cooking. In it she highlighted traditional pomegranate molasses. Rossetto Kasper says it was this that set the pomegranate trend in motion.
"The magazines start writing about it. The chefs in fancy restaurants start playing with it." Someone will take the typically Mediterranean molasses and incorporate it in, say, a Mexican dish. Then, perhaps, some upscale New York restaurant will throw the flavor into a Caesar salad.
Rossetto Kasper says it's at this point that people start commissioning all those health studies. And soon, the once overlooked product begins to infiltrate the national consciousness.
"Then suppliers start introducing it not to the fancy food store, but to the everyday supermarket in the neighborhood," explains Rossetto Kasper. "Before you know it, we are going to be seeing pomegranate-tinted stockings, leotards, who knows? When it's in Target and a designer starts designing clothes around the pomegranate, we'll know it's really arrived." Target doesn't yet sell pomegranate panty hose. But the retailer does offer pots and pans in pomegranate. They're marketed as "cookware for today's adventurous chef in a contemporary color."
It may have taken thousands of years to catch on in the Untied States, but the pomegranate has definitely made its way into mainstream America.
Consumers can now buy pomegranate lollipops, pomegranate body butter and pomegranate dish soap. They can throw back shots of PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, a 34-proof mix of natural pomegranate juice, vodka and tequila. And for a quick afternoon snack, they can enjoy Heart Healthy Dark Chocolate Pomegranate VitaTops, low-fat muffin tops that feature the flavor of the fruit.
It seems the only pomegranate product you can't find these days is the pomegranate itself. The fruit's not in season and stores in the Twin Cities won't start stocking it again until the end of September.