Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Grapefruit and Pummelo

Even with New Year's resolutions still fresh, January is a challenging time to muster any sense of get-up-and-go, unless a sun lamp is involved. The days are short and often dark, and for much of the country, cold enough to keep us indoors. Anyone else sporting those dreaded alligator hands?

That's when citrus comes to the rescue. I've got nothing against the orange-y love song penned by my Real Food colleague Katie Sweetman, but parched times like these call for citrus of the mightiest caliber, with a girth and juice to kick those winter woes to the curb. Ladies and gents, please meet the pummelo (say Pom-EH-loh) and the grapefruit.

A Brief History of Grapefruit and Pummelo

First came the pummelo, a native of Malaysia and other parts of southeast Asia, as well as the Pacific island of Fiji. The largest of all the citrus fruits, the pummelo (Citrus grandis) is shaped like a globe or sometimes like a pear, with a somewhat flattened end. Peel away its easily maneuvered thick, yellow-green rind and you'll be rewarded with a peppery perfume that should be bottled. You'll encounter a spongy and easily removed pith which gives way to enormous seedless segments in the shade of coral pink or green grapes, both delicately sweet and juicy.

By the late 17th century, the pummelo would travel across the world, from Fiji to Barbados, with a certain sea captain named Shaddock (or Chaddock). The similar subtropical conditions made the pummelo feel at home and inspired accidental plant sex with the sweet orange, resulting in the edible offspring that we've come to know as the grapefruit.

Dubbed the 'shaddock' (after the captain), the new fruit made its way to Jamaica, where in 1737 it was officially documented in The Flora of Jamaica as botanically different from the pummelo, earning the classification Citrus paradisi. In mid-18th century Barbados, the 'shaddock' was considered a 'forbidden fruit' and to this day considered one of the seven wonders of the island. (The name 'shaddock' is still used in the West Indies.)

In the early 1800s, the shaddock (and possibly even the 'shattuck') traveled from the West Indies to Florida, where it became known as the 'grapefruit' for its grape-like clusters on trees. The name irked many American commercial growers who tried in the 1940s to market it as a 'pomelo.' As you can imagine, all kinds of confusion ensued, ensuring 'grapefruit' history. But to this day, the 'pummelo' and the 'grapefruit' are both known as 'pomelos,' depending on who you're talking to. My favorite name for this fruit: Pamplemousse, dubbed by the French.

Factual Nibbles

  • In his book, Cabbages and Kings: The Origins of Fruits and Vegetables, Jonathan Roberts notes that the grapefruit is the "only citrus fruit of major commercial importance to originate in the New World."
  • By the late 1800s, the grapefruit was cultivated in Texas (more on that in a bit).
  • It is the pummelo, not the grapefruit, that is prized during Chinese New Year celebrations (which begin February 10 this year). According to cookbook author and Chinese cookery expert Grace Young, the pummelo is a traditional fruit for the new year, a symbol of prosperity and status. Given as a gift, it also figures into table centerpieces, along with other citrus.
  • South Texas is home to the famed (and patented!) red grapefruit. It was declared the official state fruit of Texas in 1993.

Grapefruit and Pummelo Cultivation

The pummelo continues to thrive in China, Thailand, Fiji, Malaysia and the Caribbean. It is commercially grown in the United States but limited to subtropical spots like Florida and California. You will have a better chance of finding a pummelo in an Asian grocery or specialty market than in a conventional supermarket.

As for grapefruit, the US is the number one producer, followed by China, South Africa and Mexico. The leading states are Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, where red grapefruit has a colorful story.

Grapefruit first came to Texas at the end of the 19th century, but not until 1929 did things start to get interesting - and radioactive.

"In 1929, farmers stumbled on the Ruby Red grapefruit, a natural mutant," according to a 2007 New York Times article. "Its flesh eventually faded to pink, however, and scientists fired radiation to produce mutants of deeper color - Star Ruby, released in 1971, and Rio Red, released in 1985. The mutant offspring now account for about 75 percent of all grapefruit grown in Texas."

The resulting ruby-red mutations also have registered trademarks. Since 1962, the state of Texas stopped growing white and pink varieties to focus solely on ruby-red production.

Grapefruit and Pummelo Seasonality

Although grapefruit is sold year round in supermarkets, the peak season runs from December until March. The peak for pummelo is similar, with a somewhat earlier arrival, around late November.

Environmental Impact of Growing Grapefruit

According to the EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, conventional grapefruit is of relatively minor concern, earning a spot on its "Clean 15" list. Due to its limited US production, pummelo is not included on the list. Please note that the guide ranks all grapefruit, without guidance on specific varieties. There is a growing number of organic grapefruit groves in Texas, Florida and California. (See our vegetable rule of thumb* below.)

Grapefruit and Pummelo Nutrition

One half of an average-size grapefruit, at just 41 calories, supplies nearly three-fourths of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C. This is an easy fix if you're starting to feel under the weather. It's also rich in Vitamin A, a decent source of fiber and potassium. The pink and red varieties are loaded the disease-fighting phytochemicals in the form of lycopene.

You'll get even more Vitamin C from a pummelo - 130 percent of the RDA - and that's just from one-fourth of this bowling ball-sized orb.

All of this is great news unless you're among the millions of Americans taking cholesterol-lowering statins, which can be compromised in combination with grapefruit. Ironically, a 2006 study revealed links between eating grapefruit and lowered blood cholesterol levels.

However, a grapefruit-pummelo hybrid designed specifically for statin users may soon be commercially available.

What to Look For When Buying Grapefruit and Pummelo 

Hold the fruit in your hand - it should feel heavy and the skin should feel smooth. Avoid browning or squishy spots.

Store in the refrigerator to avoid mold but even in the chill, citrus has a limited shelf life and should be eaten within 10 days of purchase.

Recipe: Broiled Grapefruit Rounds with Massaged Frisee

Both the pummelo and grapefruit pair beautifully with bitter greens - arugula, watercress, frisee and escarole. They like fennel, red onion, avocado and leafy herbs such as basil and cilantro. Either is a great complement to grilled shrimp or scallops and will brighten up a dark wintry night.

The recipe that follows is a tribute to broiled grapefruit halves that were all the rage in the 1970s when everyone (including my mother) thought grapefruit was a magic weight loss wand.

Excerpted from "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations" by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.


3 cups frisée or escarole that has been washed, dried, and chopped finely
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
14 to 12 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 Ruby Red grapefruit
1 tablespoon light or dark brown sugar
Optional garnish: 14 cup unsalted roasted almonds, chopped


Place the frisée in a large bowl and add 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and 14 teaspoon of the salt. With your hands, toss the frisée as if you were massaging it; this not only ensures even coverage of the seasonings but also helps tenderize the raw greens. Taste and add the remaining lemon juice, olive oil, and salt as needed. Allow the greens to sit and marinate for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the grapefruit: Shallowly slice off one end of the grapefruit so that it has a flat edge. Do not remove the skin from the rest of the fruit. Cut into rounds about 12-inch thick, one per person.

Preheat the oven to the broil setting and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Arrange the grapefruit in a single layer on the prepared pan. Sprinkle 12 teaspoon of the brown sugar on the top of each grapefruit, so that it's evenly distributed. Place the grapefruit under the broiler for 5 minutes.

Using a 13-cup measure, mound the salad atop each broiled grapefruit round. Garnish with almonds, if using.

Makes 6 servings

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)

This post was orginally published in January 2013.