Dried Plums & Osteoporosis

In my book, The Whole-Body Approach to Osteoporosis, I tout the benefits of dried plums for bone health. I was first introduced to the benefits of dried plums 11 years ago at the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research held in Phoenix. This 5 day seminar (held in different places around the globe each year) is where doctors and researchers go to "bone-up" on all the latest research about osteoporosis. Being especially interested in any research about bone health and nutrition, I was constantly on the look out for posters (small displays at conferences that presenters use to show their current research) and lectures about nutrition. If you have ever been to a major medical conference, you know what I'm talking about when I say you can always tell which research topics are "hot" and which ones are...well....not. If a poster doesn't have that much to offer in the way of new information/new research, it can get pretty lonely for the presenter. Just about everyone walks right by. It's pretty easy to rate the  "hotness factor" of a poster. If no one stops to even take a peek...well, it's pretty dull.

One day, as I was walking around the poster hall looking at the hundreds of posters being presented, I saw this man standing, very lonely, by his poster. I had walked by him a few times earlier that morning but I was either engaged in talking with another researcher or heading off to a fascinating lecture on RANKL, OPG, JAK/STAT5 or some other bone-related subject (most everything at these seminars is about something so complex that it has a really long name so they have to use abbreviations). I remember noticing, as I would pass by, that no one...absolutely no one...was ever talking to him...or even, for that matter, looking at his poster.

Back then, in 2001, dried plums were more commonly referred to as prunes. My mom loved prunes...and that is what I connected prunes with, getting older and having internal plumbing problems. In those days, prunes were only of interest when, and only when, gastrointestinal purging was needed. In recent years however, the plum growers of America have gone to great lengths to distance their shriveled product from this association and re-brand them as promoters of health and as ultra-combatants of disease. It wasn't until the third time walking by the poster with the lonely man, that I glanced over at his poster. It read: PLUMB. Hmmm, with all the acronyms for complex bone signaling molecules and the like being thrown around at this seminar, my first thought was of a newly discovered molecule. What fancy bone-signaling molecule might the acronym, PLUMB, stand for?

The smile on his face as I approached was more like that of a lost puppy being found than that of a medical researcher. Poster M425," Dried Plums Improve Indices of Bone Formation in Postmenopausal Women." REALLY I asked?! And for the next half hour (Un-interupted....No, no one else was interested. Mind you now, there were about 2,000 attendees at this seminar.), I had the pleasure of talking with this brilliant professor from Oklahoma State University about "dried plums" and their amazing effect on the bones of postmenopausal women. Wow! I was totally blown away by his research. This was pretty hot stuff and no one seemed interested! For sure, nutrition for bone health was just not a hot topic.

Since those early days of research on dried plums, there have been plenty of supporting papers to substantiate their health benefits, especially for osteoporosis. Dried plums ARE good for bone health. In fact, dried plums are great for bone health. I think I have actually become the dried plum industry's most fervent purchaser over the years. Try them! Just put a dozen or so (organic only) into a bowl, pour some water over them, and by the next morning they will be delicate, tasty, morsels of healthy goodness. And make sure to drink the juice when you finish eating the prunes. There has been so much interest lately on the benefits of prunes that there are now supplement companies selling products with dried plum extract. This is good...and bad...  Let me explain.

My concern about using dried plum extract for bone health is that its use may cause the consumer to substitute extract for the whole dried fruit. They are not the same. Dried plum extract consists mostly of polyphenolic compounds. Polyphenols are phytochemicals with antioxidant activity that are found not only in dried plums but also in other fruits and in vegetables. Blackberries, blueberries, grapes, melons, pears, broccoli, kale, etc...etc...(all the things you should be eating for bone health) have high levels of polyphenols.

But dried plums, like other fruits and vegetables, are way more than just polyphenols, and their positive effects go beyond improving bone health. Dried plums are linked to the improvement in vascular health, to reduced blood lipids and lowering of blood pressure. They help with anxiety and depression, and even have anti-cancer activity. But it is the WHOLE dried fruit that needs to be consumed for all these benefits...not just the extract.  In addition to the polyphenols, dried plums are rich in vitamins (A, B, and K), minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, boron...), and fiber. They also contain antioxidant compounds other than polyphenols, and in fact, only 23% of the total antioxidant activity of dried plums is attributed to their polyphenols (Madaru et al. 2010). The benefits of dried plums, therefore, should be received from the WHOLE package...the whole dried plum. This is where you will receive the most benefit from the spectacular bone-mega-helper-signaling molecule, PLUMB.   

If you are interested in reading more about the benefits of dried plums, check out the review article by Qaiser Jabeen and Naveed Asiam in the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research (2011).