Consumers develop a passion for all things pomegranate


Issue Date: December 6, 2006
Tracy Sellers

With its ruby red exterior, jewel-like seeds and ornamental appearance, it's only natural that the pomegranate has long held the spotlight as a holiday centerpiece. But in many respects, that's where its significance had stopped—until one company got the pomegranate juices flowing.

Ever since POM Wonderful, the Central California-based cultivator of the Wonderful variety of pomegranates, began heavily promoting the fruit and, more importantly, its juice in 2002, pomegranates have been popping up in the most unexpected food products.

Everything from tea and truffles to ice cream and chewing gum is now being infused with the flavor of this unique fruit. Consumers are demanding it. In 2002, Americans ate—or drank—10 times as many pomegranates annually as they did in 2000 before the company began marketing its fresh pomegranate juice.

"When we first pitched the idea of pomegranates to retailers, they laughed at us," said Kurt Vetter, POM Wonderful's vice president of sales. "They told us no one grew pomegranates, no one ate pomegranates and we said, that's the whole point. There's a whole untapped market out there."

According to the San Francisco-based Pomegranate Council, about 250 growers in California produce almost all the domestic pomegranate crop on approximately 14,000 acres, mostly in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley. With the current popularity of the fruit, the council's director expects acreage to expand along with consumption.

"People are getting more familiar with pomegranates and all the products that use pomegranates in them," said Tom Tjerandsen. "They're getting a broader understanding of the fruit, which is increasing the usage."

California's pomegranate farmers grow several different varieties, both for fresh market and for processing. A few of them include Spanish Sweet or Papershells, Ruby Red, Granada (widely grown in Tulare County), Foothill Early (a recent patented introduction in Central California) and, the most popular, the Wonderful and Early Wonderful varieties.

"We started out with just a few small orchards and a couple of markets for fresh pomegranates and now we've grown to have huge orchards and big markets for both fresh and processed pomegranates-and there still is a tremendous amount of room for growth," said Bernard Puget, POM Wonderful's orchard manager.

"You know it's funny when we first started out, only about 12 percent of the general public knew what a pomegranate was," Vetter said. "And when I started working here five years ago, most of my friends thought I was absolutely crazy."

Crazy or not, POM Wonderful's route to success was a circuitous one. In the late 1980s, parent company Paramount Farms acquired a pistachio and almond grower whose land also had several pomegranate trees on it. For a while those trees were pulled out and replaced with different crops. Then the growers began to wonder about the reported health benefits of pomegranates, Vetter said, and decided to do a little research.

"Pomegranate seeds and juice contain high levels of disease-fighting antioxidants-higher proportionately than in other fruits, red wine or green tea," said Dr. Harley Liker, professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They are also packed with vitamins C and E and are thought to possess heart-healthy properties as well."

All in all, the company has funded 21 studies, with 44 more in the pipeline. And thus far, the research is paying off. POM Wonderful has become the largest grower of pomegranates in the nation.

"They definitely helped to turn the industry around," Tjerandsen said. "In essence, they reintroduced the fruit to the public's consciousness."

Farming in Fowler for nearly 30 years, Jim Simonian of the Simonian Fruit Co. has seen firsthand the success of the fruit. A grower, shipper and marketer of pomegranates, he has experienced a huge jump in sales.

"Twenty years ago, people just used them for decorations. It wasn't really until all the medical research was done on the pomegranate that people started becoming aware of what they are all about. Today there is much more of a worldwide awareness of all the health benefits the fruit has and now it seems like everyone is planting pomegranates," Simonian said. .000

"We've definitely seen the growth of the pomegranate trickle down to our end of the business, too," said Ed Laivo, a retail specialist for the Dave Wilson Nursery near Modesto. The nursery is one of the largest growers of deciduous fruit, nut and shade trees in California. Laivo said one of their biggest sellers over the last five years has been for cuttings and seeds of pomegranates.

"I think the pomegranate is in the discovery stage by many Americans. For years it has been popular in the Middle East, but now people are finally starting to realize how great the fruit is and how easy it is to grow," Laivo said. "A pomegranate tree only really needs three things to be successful: no rain before harvest, no wind and 600 chilling hours."

Overall, this year has been a good one for pomegranate growers throughout the state. Despite some bouts of intense heat and early rain, the harvest was solid.

"This year there is an exceptional market for juice-we're getting about $350 to $450 a ton and the fresh market fruit is also good," Simonian said. "We might come up a little short on that because the heat caused some cracks in some of the early market fruit, but there's certainly plenty to go around."

And there's plenty of potential for pomegranates, too. At Farallon in San Francisco, pastry chef Emily Luchetti said she has seen an increase in her customers' willingness to try the ruby red fruit in a variety of dishes. She uses fresh pomegranates and pomegranate juice in marinades, sauces and sorbets and the ruby-like arils (the fleshy seed covers) as a colorful edible garnish.

"It has become much more accepted. It always takes awhile to get an ingredient on people's palates. But once they hear about it and try it, they love it," Luchetti said.

Although pomegranates are enjoying a newfound role with chefs and consumers alike, they have served as important symbols throughout history. Celebrated in mythology, literature and art, the pomegranate has a long and noble history. In Greek, Roman, Persian, Hebrew and Chinese lore, the pomegranate became a symbol of fertility. In Jewish tradition, pomegranates are an emblem of prosperity, and in Christian art, they stand for hope.

"It's funny, as long as the fruit has been around, we still don't know a whole lot about it," Puget said. "So for us, the whole thing has been a learning process. You have mistakes and you have successes, but overall, it's an extremely exciting industry to be a part of."

(Tracy Sellers is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at tsellers@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.