Until recently, America’s pomegranate lovers could indulge their passion for its ruby-red seeds for less than half the year. Now, the trendy fresh fruit that’s packed with health benefits will be available in the United States year-round.
More than a thousand pounds of pomegranate seeds arrived last week from India at the Hunts Point wholesale produce market in the Bronx. They quickly appeared at retail markets in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — and sold out within a day.
“I’ve seen fads for all kinds of fruit, like kiwi and blueberries, but not like this — it just keeps growing and won’t peak,” said Kevin Day, a pomegranate expert at the University of California, Davis.
Like blueberries, cranberries and green tea, pomegranates are thought to be healthy because they are loaded with antioxidants, which protect cells from damage by compounds called free radicals.
Pomegranates — about the size of an apple, with a thick, reddish skin and hundreds of seeds embedded in tough, white pulp — grow in temperate climates in the fall and winter. U.S. domestic supply comes largely from California’s San Joaquin Valley, augmented by imports from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and Mexico.
In the past, fresh pomegranates disappeared from U.S. stores in spring and summer. While the fruit thrives in the Southern Hemisphere and India, those countries had not exported it in large quantities until last week.
Even now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not permit pomegranates from India to be imported as a whole fruit, because of health risks from possible pests, so processors there remove the seeds, which are then flown in chilled containers to the United States.
Nicholas Kotsianas, manager of the Garden of Eden market in Manhattan, was ecstatic when the first off-season seeds came in last week.
“It’s like fashion, it’s all the rage,” he said. “But this is here to stay.”
A day after he got 100 pounds of seeds, his store sold out despite the high price: $5.99 for a 4.4-ounce plastic container. He immediately ordered another 100 pounds.
It’s not just the seeds that are popular. Annual sales of pomegranate juice sold by California-based POM have risen from $12 million a year in 2003 to more than $100 million.
In the past two years, “pomegranates have exploded in consumption as the public has found out about the health benefits,” said Dorn Wenninger, vice president of the international division of importer S. Katzman Produce.
The Fairway Market, a gourmet grocer with four stores in the New York area, usually sells about 10,000 pounds of whole pomegranates a week during the peak U.S. season. This past week, Fairway bought 300 pounds of the shipment.
“We try to keep up with demand — so we buy as much as is available,” said Peter Romano, Fairway’s produce director.
Until a few years ago, only about 5 percent of Americans had ever tasted pomegranates.
Now, with its health benefits touted everywhere from scientific studies to the media, pomegranate has been popping up in the most unexpected places — infusing shampoo, tea, truffles, ice cream and even chewing gum and beer. More commonly, the seeds are used in salads and marinades and to garnish other dishes.
Kotsianas uses pomegranate juice for ham glaze and the fresh seeds with arugula and parmesan in salads.
“That little crunch is interesting to the palate,” he said.