Pomegranates, blueberries, and açai—not a year goes by without the media discovering a new "superfood." Unfortunately, the boasts of these fads' advertising budgets are rarely backed by rigorous scientific research—as was the case with Pom Wonderful, whose claims that their juice did everything from increase heart health to help with erectile dysfunction were challenged by the Federal Trade Commision.
But, all that pomegranate hype might seem a bit more substantial after this past week, due to new findings on the fruit that were published in the journal Nature Medicine. Researchers examined supplementation with urolithin A (UA), a molecule derived from pomegranate (as well as several other nuts and berries), that may actually hold the key to longer life.
"We believe this research is a milestone in current anti-aging efforts, which have previously focused on traditional pharmaceutical modalities, and illustrates the opportunity of rigorously tested nutritional bioactive agents that we consider to have outstanding potential for human health," stated lead author Johan Auwerx, in a press release.
UA is not actually present in the fruit itself, but derived after its precursor compounds, known as ellagitannins, are metabolized by bacteria in the gut. Speaking with MUNCHIES, Pénélope Andreux, one of the study's co-authors, points out that this can be problematic, as there are actually large swaths of the population that are incapable of properly digesting ellagitannin—thereby preventing the formation of UA.
UA's health benefits stem from its ability to induce a biological process known as mitophagy, a cleanup of sorts that occurs within the cells of the body. Mitochondria produce energy within cells, but after time they begin to breakdown. This can lead to a host of health issues including muscular and neurological problems.Mitophagy mitigates these detrimental effects of mitochondrial breakdown.
Among the results just announced from the study: These compounds increased the lifespan of worms by nearly 50 percent, and dramatically improved the endurance of elderly mice. Those results are pretty incredible; Andreux seemed barely able to contain her excitement at certain moments as she discussed them.
She told MUNCHIES: "We treated mice that were two years old—the equivalent to 70 to 80 years old [in humans]—and we treated them just for six weeks and we were able to see an improvement by 42 percent of the endurance. This is quite impressive. I don't think there is another compound that has been described to be able to do that."
A human trial is currently underway, but don't expect to live to 150 on UA supplements just yet. Andreux insists that immortality isn't their focus, as exciting as it may seem.
"The most important [thing] is that we are improving health," she says, "rather than increasing the lifespan, that people are aging better, that you don't develop age-related disease, such as sarcopenia or neurodegenerative diseases."
A UA product is not yet available, but Andreux says the intent of this research is to eventually bring one to market. Unlike so many other health supplements, she firmly believes that UA has the science to back up its claims.
With a wealth of research, UA seems like it could be a legitimate health supplement, compared to those overpriced bottles of deep purple juice. It probably won't taste as good in a cocktail, though.