Food,  Health,  Science

Bone loss? Osteoporosis? Don’t forget your prunes

By Roberta Attanasio

I like a good prune. I mean, when it’s soft and sweaty like a candy bar on a hot day. When it’s a sinister Disney-villain shade of brownish purple, and it tastes of nothing but honey and caramel, what’s not to like?”

Prunes are dried plums, rich in phenolic compounds. Carried from China along the Silk Road thousands of years ago, plum trees flourished all over the Mediterranean basin under the aegis of the Greeks and Romans. The fruits were dried in the sun or in bakers’ ovens, depending on the region, transforming them into prunes. Because of their high nutritional values and long shelf life, prunes provided sustenance during times of poor harvests or for long sea or land journeys. Nowadays, they’re used in many different recipes, and are also eaten as snacks, often mixed with nuts.

Most of America’s prunes are made from the La Petite d’Agen, a French plum variety brought to California from France in 1856. Tejal Rao tells us: “In most parts of the world, including the small town east of Paris where I lived as a kid, prunes were never a punch line. Good prunes were considered a serious craft, a worthy, occasional expense, a perfectly conventional thing to love. They’d be simmered with game, whipped into a boozy mousse or slipped into baggies to eat as a snack. They’d disintegrate into a lamb tagine, or be sliced almost all the way open and filled with cold foie-gras terrine on New Year’s Eve. But my favorite way to have prunes was in a tart full of frangipane, the sweet, buttery almond cream that goes very nearly chewy when it cools.”

There is even more to like about prunes—a recent scientific review shows that prunes can help prevent or delay bone loss in postmenopausal women. The review (The Role of Prunes in Modulating Inflammatory Pathways to Improve Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women), published in the journal Advances in Nutrition (February 2022) by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, examined a variety of studies.

Bones are living tissues in a constant state of renewal—new bone is made and old bone is broken down daily. Bone loss and osteoporosis occur when the generation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the loss of old bone. At a young age, the body makes new bone faster than it breaks down the old one—therefore, the bone mass increases. After the early 20s, this process slows. Most people reach their peak bone mass by age 30. As people age, bone mass is lost faster than it’s generated, resulting in weak and brittle bones, the hallmark of osteoporosis. Some of the factors that contribute to the development of osteoporosis are oxidative stress and inflammation.

Eventually, bones may become so brittle that a fall or even mild stresses—such as bending over or coughing—can cause a fracture, especially in the hip, wrist or spine. Although osteoporosis affects men and women of all races, white and Asian women, especially older women who are past menopause, are at highest risk of developing it. The condition affects more than 200 million women worldwide, causing almost nine million fractures each year.

The researchers found that the bone protective effects of prunes may derive from their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. According to lead author Connie Rogers, in postmenopausal women lower levels of estrogen can trigger a rise of oxidative stress and inflammation, increasing the risk of weakening bones that may lead to fractures. Incorporating prunes into the diet may help protect bones by slowing or reversing this process.

She said: “Osteoporosis represents a major public health issue with women over 50 years old. Non-pharmaceutical nutritional interventions are becoming increasingly popular, and prunes have been extensively studied as a potential intervention in some populations. There is increasing evidence that the bone protective effects of prunes may be connected to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, and it is possible that changes to the gut from eating prunes may also be involved in favorable bone outcomes.”

The new findings underscore the health benefits of fruits and vegetables rich in bioactive compounds such as phenolic acid, flavonoids and carotenoids. The crinkled and wrinkly prunes are definitely among those that rank high in the superfoods list.

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