Jan./Feb. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Matt Salvo
Prunes deliver impressive health benefits—and more
The transformation: the fresh plum used to make prunes, after it has been dried and after it has been rehydrated and pitted.
There is no question that prunes have long suffered an image problem as a food associated with the elderly and occasions when your plumbing needs a jump-start.
The dark, wrinkly fruit's reputation as a laxative has so completely overshadowed its many other qualities and uses that it even went through a makeover some years back—renamed as "dried plums" in an effort to broaden its appeal.
Prune farmers John Taylor, left, and Richard Taylor show containers of the dried fruit before it is further processed and packaged.
"It's like the stepchild. It's just taken for granted," said John Taylor, who runs Taylor Brothers Farms in Sutter County with his older brother Richard and whose family has been growing prunes for three generations.
A mechanical shaker is used to harvest the plums.
These days, those in the prune business are no longer trying to downplay the digestive benefits of the little dried fruit. Rather, they're celebrating it as the original superfood that is also an important source of antioxidants, good for your heart and may help build strong bones, thereby reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
"It's a big winner," said Donn Zea, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board. "If you look at what's happened in the last decade in the United States with respect to digestive health and probiotics—that whole market has exploded. And here we are, sort of the original, old-school product. Now we find out through all our medical research that prunes have myriad benefits beyond just the laxative thing."
Plums are held in bins before they are sent to the dryer.
He said many young people, particularly millennials, are already health-conscious and understand the benefits of eating whole foods. Nutrient-packed prunes, he said, fit right in as part of a natural, healthful diet. The challenge is getting consumers to see prunes as more than a one-dimensional food.
From sweet to savory
At Taylor Brothers' drying facility in Corning, the fresh plums are washed, laid out on trays, below, and then put through a dehydrator at 189 degrees, bottom.
As someone who's been farming prunes his whole life, Taylor said he has always been a huge fan of the product and eats four to six of them a day. His family uses prunes in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, including his favorites such as prune-filled oatmeal bars and pork loin roast with prune stuffing. (Find these recipes below.)
"Green smoothies are the new thing, and when my wife makes them, she'll put three prunes in the smoothie and she said it just wakes it up. It makes it more flavorful, more palatable," Taylor said.
In baked goods, prunes can be used to reduce the amount of fat while adding moisture. And because they are also a natural preservative and mold inhibitor, Taylor said, adding them to bread and other baked goods helps extend their shelf life.
Bilal Sabir, owner of Oakland-based Delightful Foods, which makes a variety of vegan cookies, said prunes are essential to his recipes. He's been using them for more than 20 years.
By adding prune puree to his cookies, Sabir said he uses less oil and his cookies stay soft and chewy for weeks longer.
"Soft cookies are going to get hard unless you use some preservatives, which we don't," he said. "Even some of my competitors who use other things besides prunes have a rough time keeping their cookies soft."
Prunes also help to keep meat from drying, Taylor said, noting that Taylor Brothers sells about 20 percent of its prunes to food manufacturers, including meat processors that use the product for its moisture-holding qualities.
"They found that when they add prunes to it at 2 to 3 percent, it retains the moisture and the product didn't turn into shoe leather," he said.
Taylor Brothers makes a prune concentrate for that, as well as to add coloring. For example, adding a tablespoon to a pound of ground beef when making meatloaf or hamburgers will keep it moist, Taylor said.
"Another unique thing about prunes is they enhance flavors," Taylor said. "You can put a little bit of prune in a baking recipe or in a meat marinade. You don't taste it, but it'll make everything a little more vibrant."
Small fruit, large demand
California produces nearly all of the nation's prunes and about 48 percent of the world supply, with most of those orchards located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, according to the California Dried Plum Board. Sutter County, home to Taylor Brothers Farms and leading prune marketer Sunsweet, is the state's top prune-growing region.
Once a grower of a wide range of crops, Taylor Brothers began focusing on prunes in the late 1980s and moved into processing and packing its own prunes in 1992. Today, the company also buys prunes from about 30 other area growers and handles more than 6,000 tons of traditional and organic prunes a year. The company is the world's largest organic prune grower and processor.
Harvest, which usually starts in mid-August and runs about four weeks, is largely done by machine. A mechanical shaker grabs each tree individually and, in a matter of seconds, shakes the fruit onto a fabric catching frame. From there, the prunes are trucked to Taylor Brothers' drying facility in Corning, in Tehama County, where the fruit is washed, laid out on trays and put through a dehydrator at 189 degrees.
After the prunes come out of the dryer, they are stored in Taylor Brothers' Yuba City facility until they are ready to be rehydrated, pitted, re-inspected and packed.
After they're dried, the prunes can be kept in storage until they're ready to be further processed and packed. This happens at Taylor Brothers' headquarters and processing facility in Yuba City, where the fruit is rehydrated, mechanically pitted, re-inspected and packaged.
Not all plums are created equal
Even though prunes are technically dried plums, the varieties used to make prunes are not the same as those grown for fresh consumption.
"All prunes are plums, but not all plums are prunes," Taylor said.
Compared to fresh plums, prune plums are usually smaller in size, more egg-shaped than round and much denser. But the key difference between the two is that a prune plum can dry without fermentation, Taylor said. That means you can pluck a prune plum from the tree, lay it on the ground and it will dry without spoiling, whereas a fresh plum contains more water and will spoil before it dries.
Prune plums are also sweet and delicious when fresh, but Taylor said there's only about a 10-day window when the fruit is this quality. Once they become too ripe, their texture tends to wrinkle, shrink and turn mushy, he added.
Because old traditions die hard, Taylor acknowledged his company never quite made the switch to calling its product "dried plums" and now believes it may be a moot point.
"Prunes have been around forever and people recognize the name," he said. "The diehard prune eaters say why change the name; it just messes people up. Some of the young kids don't know any difference."
Prunes—also known as dried plums—show off their versatility in these recipes from the California Dried Plum Board.
All food photos are courtesy of the California Dried Plum Board