We've always enjoyed pomegranates for their sweet, tart flavour, but now there's a new reason to embrace this robust-looking red fruit. They're being touted as a nutritional powerhouse, and they're popping up in everything from cocktails to body lotion.

The pomegranate, with its edible seeds inside juicy sacs, is high in vitamin C and potassium, low in calories (80 per serving, which is just under one-third of a medium fruit), and a good source of fibre. Pomegranates are especially high in polyphenols, a form of antioxidant purported to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. In fact, pomegranate juice, which contains health-boosting tannins, anthocyanins, and ellagic acid, has higher antioxidant activity than green tea and red wine.

According to the American Dietetic Association, studies involving mice and humans show that eating pomegranates may help prevent clogged arteries. In addition, a recent study from Jonsson Cancer Center at UCLA found that levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen), a protein marker for prostate cancer, increased 35% more slowly in men with recurrent prostate cancer who drank 8 ounces of pomegranate juice daily after surgery or radiation. (The study also found that it took 54 months to double PSA levels, compared to 15 months in men who did not drink the juice.) Increasing the time it takes for a man's PSA levels to double may postpone cancer recurrences and reduce his need to have other cancer treatment procedures, such as surgery or radiation, in the future.

Pomegranate juice also appears to suppress the growth of cancer cells and cause prostate cancer cells to die. It is believed that the antioxidants in the juice - particularly ellagic acid - are behind this beneficial effect. There are also some very early research being conducted to find out how pomegranate juice may be used to treat breast cancer and osteoarthritis.

There are many ways to enjoy this succulent fruit. Pomegranates are delicious on their own, and their seeds can be tossed in salads and sprinkled over cooked dishes. The juice can also be used to make jellies, sorbets, sauces, and wine, and as flavouring for baked apples, cakes, and other treats. Pomegranate syrup is used to make grenadine, which adds flavour and sweetness to mixed drinks.

The pomegranate may be the fruit du jour, but it also has an incredibly rich and storied pedigree. It's native to Iran, the Himalayas, and northern India. It starred in the Greek myth of the Earth Goddess, Persephone, whom Hades tempted with the fruit's jewel-like appearance (unfortunately, when she ate it, she was sent packing to the underworld). The ancient Egyptians considered the pomegranate an aphrodisiac, and also buried the fruit with their dead. Many of the world's cultures and religions have also embraced the pomegranate as a symbol of abundance and fertility. Artwork featuring a ripe pomegranate is a popular gift for Chinese newlyweds, and Greek brides might toss the fruit instead of a bouquet.

Science is just beginning to uncover the pomegranate's potential, but many cultures have used the fruit medicinally for centuries, especially for gastroenterological ailments. In a particularly prophetic move, the pomegranate appears in the coats-of-arms of several medical associations, including the British Medical Association and Royal College of Physicians in London.

While we don't yet understand all of the pomegranate's properties, there's no reason to wait to enjoy the benefits. Pass the pomegranate martini!