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Eating Smart

Prunes--Er, Dried Plums--Pack a Powerful Punch

February 26, 2001|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR

Fifty-two percent of Americans are overweight, according to recently published reports, and only about 12% of us have what could be considered "good diets." Consumers are busier than ever and looking for ways to reduce our shopping and cooking time, so we rely heavily on prepared meals and fast food.

But getting enough fruits and vegetables into your diet isn't as difficult as you might think, especially if you pay attention to those that are portable, nutritious and easy to incorporate into cooked dishes.

Dried plums fall into this category.

Dried plums, you ask? What on earth are those? Well, "dried plum" is the new "approved" name for an old friend: the prune.

Prunes are full of fiber (which helps explain their laxative effects), are loaded with potassium (an 8-ounce glass of prune juice has more potassium than a whole banana) and are extremely high in antioxidants. (Antioxidants are special compounds that help protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals; when healthy cells suffer damage, they are more susceptible to the effects of aging and certain diseases.)

Prunes topped the list of all commonly eaten fruits and vegetables in a lab analysis that measured the antioxidant power of foods and other chemical substances, according to a recent study from Tufts University. The analysis compared fruits and vegetables by weight, with prunes scoring more than twice as high as raisins and blueberries (which ranked 2 and 3 on the list) and more than five times as high as fresh plums. Prunes also scored more than three times higher than kale and spinach, which topped the list of tested vegetables.

And as if that weren't reason enough to incorporate prunes into a healthy diet, they are also rich in beta carotene and prove to be a good source of vitamins, iron and boron.

Because the sugar in dried fruit is concentrated, prunes are higher in calories than a similar amount of fresh fruit, which contain mostly water. A cup of diced prunes contains about 400 calories.

There are many ways to make prunes a part of your diet. They're a handy snack or can be chopped or diced into muffin or pancake batter. You can stir them into hot cereal and use them with poultry or stews (adding them in the last few minutes of cooking). Prunes are great in stuffings and mixed into sweet potatoes or squashes.

And, of course, there's prune juice, which is so sweet, it can be substituted for sugar in drinks, sauces and fruit salads. On cold nights, try hot prune juice with a little lemon juice and a cinnamon stick.

It's also possible to substitute prune puree or prune butter for butter, oil or margarine in many baked goods. Fat-free prune butter should be available in the jam, jelly or baking section of your supermarket. You can make your own prune puree by putting 1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) of pitted prunes and 6 tablespoons of water into a food processor. Pulse on and off until the prunes are finely chopped. This will make about one cup. If you want to make more and keep it on hand, the puree will keep in a tightly sealed, refrigerated container for up to two months.

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It may take a little experimenting to get your prune recipes just right, but here are some hints that should help:

* Don't beat excessively, or your product could have a rubbery, tough texture.

* Place the pans in the center of the oven, and watch closely, being careful not to over-bake. If a baking time range is given, check your baked goods at the lowest point of the range. Check your oven for temperature accuracy.

* When you first try replacing fat with prunes, use half the amount of prune puree for the butter, margarine or oil in the recipe (i.e., 1/2 cup of puree for 1 cup of butter).

* Substituting prune butter for all the fat may leave your baked product a little rubbery, so you may want to do a three-quarters substitution. If the final product is too dry, try adding back a little of the fat a teaspoon at a time.

Look for a tightly sealed package when you're buying whole prunes. If you buy them in bulk, select the prunes carefully, being sure to look for those that are slightly moist and still have some flexibility. Their skin should be a bluish black, with no blemishes.

Prunes can be stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry place for up to six months. In the refrigerator, they'll last about nine months; they can be frozen for about a year.

Pitted prunes are more expensive than those with the pits left in. If you wish to pit them yourself, use kitchen scissors and dip the blades in warm water between each cut to keep them from getting sticky.

If you want to plump up your prunes, simmer them in an equal amount of liquid (1 cup of prunes in 1 cup of water, wine, juice or other liquid) for about eight minutes. If you want to plump them up in a microwave, place the prunes in a dish, sprinkle them with fruit juice, cover and cook at 100% for about two minutes. Just be careful not to overcook because they will get mushy.

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Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to daogar@uclink4.berkeley.edu. Eating Smart appears the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

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