Prunes are particularly known for their laxative effect. This is due in part to the large amount of fibre they contain which promotes the free movement of faecal matter through the colon. This fibre is soluble, meaning it can lower cholesterol by flushing out excess build-up whilst preventing its proliferation. The fibre in prunes also plays an important role in feeding good gut bacteria which is essential to the smooth function of the digestive system as a whole.
A rich source of the compounds sorbitol and isatin, both of these natural plant chemicals are helpful in relieving constipation – further adding to the laxative effects of prunes.
Prunes are high in a class of phytonutrients called “phenols”. They contain two phenols that are unique to plums and prunes – “neochlorogenic” and “chlorogenic” acid which have been shown in numerous studies to have a high effectiveness against free radicals, especially one of the most damaging, “superoxide anion radical”. This is particularly damaging to the fats in cell membranes, brain cells and cholesterol molecules – neutralising this free radical will go a long way in the protection of health.
In addition to these powerful compounds, prunes are also high in anthocyanins – hence their rich purple hue. Potent antioxidants, anthocyanins have been extensively studied and consequently shown to contribute to; heart health, liver function, cholesterol reduction and arthritis relief due to their anti-inflammatory effects.
Rich in vitamin A, one 25g serving of prunes will provide around 15% of the RDA of this important nutrient. Prunes deliver vitamin A in the form of 5 carotenoids; alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin – these 3 carotenoids are converted into the form of vitamin A used by cells in the eyes that convert light into nerve impulses. The other 2 are lutein and zeaxanthin which are found in the retina where they protect cells from harmful blue light wavelengths. Lutein and zeaxanthin may also reduce the risk of developing age related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Some studies have linked prune consumption with a reduced risk of debilitating bone conditions such as osteoporosis. Whilst it’s still unclear why prunes exert such a positive effect on bone health, one definite contributor is the amount of vitamin K contained in these fruits. One 25g serving of prunes will provide around twice the RDA of vitamin K, an essential nutrient to the maintenance of normal bones. It works together with vitamin D to produce the protein “osteocalcin” - without this protein minerals cannot bind together to form the density of bones. There is also evidence that vitamin K positively affects calcium balance – a key mineral in bone metabolism.
Folklore and history
Although plum trees are thought to have originated in China, they make their first appearance in recorded history around 65 BCE when it is reported they were cultivated in Mediterranean regions by Alexander the Great himself. They arrived in the USA in the mid 19th century
However, it is "Plant Wizard" Luther Burbank who is responsible for most of the hybridisation, tirelessy conducting cross breeding experiments to produce a tree with all the right attributes such as, "stability, novelty, variety, hardiness, beauty and adaptability". He went on to develop the world's first stoneless plum with only a tiny flake of a seed at its centre. This wasn't well received and Burbank's stoneless plum was thought extinct until one of his original trees turned up in Oregon.
Dried plums or prunes have an ancient heritage, their recorded point of origin is Western Asia - more specifically the Caucasus Mountains. From here they were carried westward, eventually finding their way into South Central Europe and the Balkans.
Prunes are essentially dried plums, however although both fruits come from the same genus (prunus), the prune comes from a different plant. The plums that are dried to make prunes are of a specific European variety and not all plum varieties are dried to make prunes.
Plums and prunes have a rich heritage in many cultures, with prunes being a frequent ingredient in North African and Norwegian cuisine. Although renowned for their laxative effects, they are also a rich resource of many important nutrients that are crucial to human health.
Prunes can be eaten whole or used in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes.
Vitamins: A, K, B2 and B6
Minerals: Potassium, Copper and Manganese
Not recommended for diabetics, nursing mothers or those with allergic reactions to dried fruits.
If too many prunes are consumed they may have a laxative effect.