Living 50 Plus

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Prunes as a superfood are revamping fruit image

The public has certainly heard of prunes, but most people do not eat them on a regular basis. Prunes are traditionally the go-to food for a person who has digestive issues and needs help with constipation. Their reputation as a laxative has created somewhat of a negative image of prunes, but learning about the many health benefits of eating prunes could change the public perception of this fruit.

Prunes, also known as dried plums, are among the healthiest foods a person can eat. Not only do they have benefits for the gastrointestinal system, they are high in antioxidants, may help prevent premature aging and can promote cardiovascular health.

The plum is related to the peach, cherry, nectarine, apricot, and almond. The Japanese plum is the most commonly eaten fresh plum, while the European plum is the one traditionally dried to turn into prunes. Plums have been eaten for centuries, and in Chinese mythology the plum tree is associated with great age and wisdom. Plums are one of the most widely cultivated fruits.

Prunes are usually made by dehydrating the fruit quickly with the use of natural gas heat in dehydrating tunnels. Essentially, heating elements and fans are used to force hot air through plum-filled tunnels. At this point prunes can be stored or processed further for packaging. Some prunes are processed with potassium sorbate, which is a preservative that improves the shelf life of packaged prunes. Prunes also are generally washed and steamed to return some of the moisture to the fruit. Other prunes are hot-packed so they are processed without any preservatives.

What makes prunes (and plums) nutritional powerhouses is that they are very high in antioxidants, substances that help fight free radicals in the body that contribute to illness. According to researchers from Tufts University in Boston, prunes rank No. 1 in terms of antioxidant capacity. It was found that prunes had more than twice the antioxidant capacity of other superfoods, like blueberries and raisins. Dried plums also rank above fresh plums in having a greater capacity of antioxidant power. Prunes contain high levels of hydrocinnamic acids (phenol compounds), which give them their antioxidant boost.

Prunes are very high in dietary fiber, containing between 6 to 7 grams. As many know, dietary fiber is the part of plant foods that the stomach and intestinal enzymes cannot absorb into the bloodstream. Fiber will remain in the colon and absorb water, which helps soften the stool before it is passed. Prunes also contain sorbitol, which is a mild colon stimulant. This will help speed up the passage of stool and reduce the risk of constipation and hemorrhoids, and may reduce risk of colorectal cancer.

Individuals may not be aware that prunes also contain high amounts of polyphenols, which are known to restore bone mass and structure, according to Heal With Food. Therefore, dried plums are part of osteoporosis prevention treatment for postmenopausal women. Various studies have indicated prunes may have beneficial effects on bone mineral density, bone formation activity and the production of boron, which is thought to play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis.

Prunes also may help prevent certain types of cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, foods high in fiber and vitamin A may offer some protection against cancers of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts as well as cancers induced by chemicals. The phytonutrients in plums also can inhibit in-vitro breast cancer growth without adversely affecting normal cell growth.

It is well known that eating prunes and drinking prune juice can help keep a person "regular," but the nutritional benefits of dried plums extends beyond their value treating gastrointestinal conditions.

Gadsden Times