Prunes don’t really have a great reputation. People tend to associate the fruit with old people and relieving constipation, and that’s about it. Certainly, prunes don’t have the superstar status that you find with foods like pomegranate or kale.
So, are prunes good for you? Should you include them in your diet or are they something to forget about until later in life?
If you want to find out, read on.
Prunes versus Dried Plums
The relationship between prunes and plums seems pretty obvious, prunes are just dried plums, right? You would certainly get that impression from looking online or from grocery store products. However, the generalization that prunes are dried plums is only partly true.
Like any fruit or vegetable, there is a huge number of different varieties of plums.
In general, the term prune actually refers to a dried version of European plums (also known as the d’Agen plum or the Italian plum). The end result is a sweet dried fruit that is chewy, sweet and also has a fairly intense taste. These are the prunes that we are all familiar with.
So, when I ask ‘are prunes good for you’, those are the prunes that I’m talking about.
Unfortunately though, the terminology gets more complex. For one thing, the term prunes isn’t actually used all that much anymore and that all comes down to marketing. That kind of makes sense. Prunes have historically been associated with the elderly and with relieving constipation. That isn’t an especially appealing association, particularly for companies that are actively trying to sell prunes.
Because of this, the California Prune Board pressured the FDA for a change in name, which was granted in 2000. That change legally allows prunes to be marketed as dried plums. The concept was that this change would make it easier to companies to sell prunes.
That change seems to have worked too, as dried plums are becoming much more popular than prunes ever were.
This means that in the United States you may see some products called dried plums that were once called prunes. The product itself is still the same (dried European plum) so it’s only the name that has changed.
However, there is one more thing to consider.
There are some other varieties of plums that are also dried occasionally. For example, the Japanese plum is normally eaten fresh, but sometimes will be dried. When it is dried, the taste and texture of the product are very different than what we commonly consider a prune.
But, because of the change in names, a dried plum is called a dried plum, regardless of the variety of plum that was used. So, in our discussion of ‘are prunes good for you?’ I am basically talking about dried plums, but only those that come from European plums.
The terms dried plum and prune can be a bit confusing but in most cases the two terms both mean a dried European plum.
Health Benefits of Prunes
Most of us already know that prunes can be a powerful digestive remedy. One reason for this is that prunes are a good source of fiber. At the same time, they contain sorbitol, which is a sugar alcohol that is known to help loosen stool. Those compounds contribute to the way that prunes help to fight constipation – although it’s likely that other compounds play a role as well (1).
In fact, research suggests that prunes are even superior to psyllium for improving stool consistency and frequency (2). Prune juice also acts as a laxative, even though it does not contain a significant amount of fiber. This appears to be largely the result of the sorbitol in the prune juice in addition to other phytochemicals (3).
However, the benefits of prunes aren’t just limited to digestion.
Another important nutrient that prunes offers is potassium. In fact, 100 g of prunes contains around 732 mg of potassium, which is fairly high. Potassium is an important mineral for human health and it is significant for a range of chemical reactions, including some that relate to the heart (5).
In fact, getting enough potassium can help reduce the risk of heart disease by helping to improve blood pressure and to address issues with heart rhythm (6,7,8). There are also recommendations that people increase their potassium intake (9). As such, the potassium in prunes makes them a good choice for an addition to the diet. Plus, they’re easy to eat.
At the same time, one cup of pitted prunes offers 12 g of fiber, which is a fairly substantial amount. That fiber offers a number of health benefits and may even play a role in fighting hemorrhoids (10), which is yet another reason the fruit is especially good for people with constipation.
Getting enough fiber is also especially relevant for people with diabetes or prediabetes. Fiber helps to slow down the absorption of sugar into the blood, resulting in lower blood sugar levels and greater control. Getting enough fiber in the diet may also play a role in reducing type 2 diabetes risk (11).
At the same time, fiber can help with weight loss. This happens because foods that are high in fiber tend to be more satisfying than those that aren’t. After all, you’d probably get satisfied faster from prunes than you would from candy. Additionally, the potential of fiber to help normalize blood sugar levels is another reason why prunes may help with weight loss (12).
However, if you are eating prunes for weight loss, it is still important to keep an eye on your consumption, because they are pretty high in sugar.
Another reason for eating prunes is that they offer significant antioxidative benefits. Two especially significant compounds that contribute to this are chlorogenic acid and neochlorogenic acid, both of which are present in plums and prunes. Research has shown that these compounds are effective antioxidants and as such they may help to promote good health (14). Some other compounds in prunes have also been associated with antioxidant activity (15).
Impacts on Bone Health
Research has also found a bone-protective impact of prunes, although the mechanisms for this outcome are still being researched (16,17). In fact, some studies have even indicated that supplementation with prunes can help to fight osteoporosis and improve bone health (18). For example, one study found that dried plum could reverse bone loss in an animal model of osteoporosis (19) while another study found that dried plum could prevent bone loss in a similar model (20).
One of these studies was particularly interesting.
In it, the authors compared the impacts of dried apples and prunes on bone outcomes in the postmenopausal women (23). Participants were split into two treatment group. The first group (55 women) consumed 100 g of prunes per day (roughly ten prunes) for 12 months. The second group (45 women) consumed 75 g of dried apples for the same period. Those specific amounts were chosen because they were similar in levels of calories, fiber, carbohydrates and fat.
It's also worth noting that the participants were advised to work their way up to the 10 prune mark, because of the laxative effects of prunes. If a person gradually increases their prune intake, they are unlikely to experience substantial laxative effects. However, if the same person went from no prunes a day to 10, the results could be a bit… uncomfortable.
Both groups experienced protective impacts to their bones. However, the overall results were better for the prune group. This included a higher reduction in bone turnover markers, a decrease in levels of the inflammation marker (CRP) and a decrease in markers of bone resorption.
At the same time, neither group gained weight throughout the study, even though they did not adjust their diets to account for the extra calories. The study also had a high level of adherence among participants with participants enjoying eating prunes each day. This means that prunes may be a great way to improve bone health with relatively little effort.
One potential mechanism for the impacts on bone health comes from the nutrient boron. There isn’t a recommended daily allowance (RDA) for boron because there is still significant debate about the precise role that boron plays in the body (24).
Nevertheless, there is some evidence that boron can be significant in the growth and maintenance of bone health (25). One research study recommends consuming at least 3 mg of boron per day to get these benefits (26), and consuming 100 g of prunes daily would achieve this level (27).
Prunes are significant for health in a range of ways, including decreasing heart disease risk, acting as a digestive remedy, being an antioxidant and promoting improved bone health.
Challenges of Prunes
Despite their benefits, there are also some issues associated with prunes.
One of these is the sugar content. Like all dried fruit, prunes are fairly high in sugar compared to the amount of fruit that you are actually consuming. For example, one cup of pitted prunes contains 66 g of sugar (28).
If you were to eat a regular plum, you would be getting a decent amount of water along with that sugar. On average, this would mean that you tend to eat less overall. For example, a single plum contains an average of 7 g of sugar, although this will vary with size (29).
The end result is that you tend to get more sugar from prunes than plums. The sugar density in prunes plays a large role in this as does the fact that you can eat prunes easier and faster than you could eat plums.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that prunes are unhealthy.
After all, the fiber in prunes does help balance out some of that sugar content, meaning that it won’t spike your blood sugar as much as it would otherwise (30,31). More than anything, you simply need to eat prunes in moderation and make sure you aren’t consuming too many calories.
A second potential issue with prunes is oxalates, which are present in both prunes and plums. Oxalates are specific compounds that can be found in some foods and organisms. A high concentration of oxalates in the blood can contribute to health problems. Oxalates can also hinder the absorption of calcium although in most cases this effect is relatively small.
For most of the population, foods containing oxalates aren’t really anything to be concerned about. Additionally, there are other common foods that contain more oxalates than plums and prunes do (32).
Nevertheless, if you have issues with kidney stones or other issues connected to your kidney or gallbladder, you may want to forgo prunes. If nothing else, take the time to talk to your doctor about whether or not you should be eating prunes.
Prunes do contain a decent amount of sugar and are a source of oxalates. But, as long as you are aware of these issues, prunes can be a very health addition to the diet.
Are Prunes Good for You?
Even with their sugar content and oxalates, prunes are still a healthy diet option, especially when it comes to improving your bone health. They are also a good source of a range of vitamins and minerals. Plus, you can even avoid the laxative effect if you incorporate them into your diet slowly.
Realistically, prunes are much better for your health than most people assume, and it’s great to see that the benefits of prunes are starting to get recognized.
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What do you think? Can prunes be a good part of a normal healthy diet?