I have distinct memories of being at preschool, sitting on a bench seat during morning tea. Day after day, under the Queensland summer sun, you’d find me with a little box of sultanas squarely in the palm of my hand.
Over the years, I’d come to know currants, raisins and dried apricots, either as afternoon snacks or as the main event in mum’s Christmas pudding. And recently, flicking through my great-grandmother’s leather-bound cookbook, I found a simple recipe for a ‘homemade laxative’, of course with prunes as the star ingredient!
It turns out there’s a mountain of papers suggesting the various positive effects of many dried fruits on digestive function, appetite regulation, insulin activity, tumour suppression and osteoporosis prevention and more!
What is dried fruit?
Traditionally, the term ‘dried fruit’ refers to any whole or cut fruit that has been dried by heat, air or the sun. Popular among our hunter-gatherer ancestors and more recently as a means to ensure food lasted throughout the winter, dried fruits pop up everywhere throughout history and across cultures.
Common examples are dates, prunes, figs, apricots, sultanas and raisins. Almost all fruit can be dried or dehydrated. Some other popular additions to the dried fruit category include bananas, mangoes, apples, pears and berries.
Some are naturally dried and packaged without preservatives; others have preservatives added to maintain their appearance and shelf life, while others might have added sugar or juice as well.
Dried fruit can be a great healthy alternative to other packaged snacks, storing well and available year-round.
Dried Fruit Nutrition information & Health Benefits – At a Glance
- Low G.I.
- Helps digestive function
- Supports microbiome
- Balances blood glucose
- Promotes bone growth
- Supports cardiovascular function
- Anti-cancer properties
- Supports men’s reproductive function
- Regulates hormones
- Healthy pregnancy outcomes
- Osteoporosis management
Contrary to popular belief, the overall sugar content in dried fruits such as plums, apricots, raisins and sultanas is relatively low in comparison to the fibre and total polyphenol content.
This means they are naturally-low GI foods, which do not elicit a spike in blood glucose levels upon consumption. The fibre content also means these foods have a natural laxative effect and can help with healthy bowel function.
Interestingly, the process of drying the fruit appears to concentrate the available micronutrient levels within the fruit. Research shows that compared to their fresh counterparts, up to 5 times increased levels of folate exist in Australian dried sultanas, apricots, currants and prunes. Calcium, magnesium, boron, iron, copper, zinc and selenium are also plentiful in these fruits.
The concentration of polyphenols as well as vitamins and minerals has other meaningful health benefits. Some reports indicate that increasing dried fruit consumption to between three and five servings (about 30g per serve) each week could prevent the development of various types of cancers, including pancreatic, bladder and stomach cancer.
A berry of Chinese origin and botanically from the Lycium family, Goji berries are nutritionally unrivalled with several traditional and modern uses. They contain modest amounts of copper, manganese, selenium and B vitamins and contain around 13% protein, which is unusual for a berry. This makes it a great healthy dried fruit choice.
Famously touted for possessing anti-aging and immune enhancing properties, the Goji berry has powerful antioxidants, which protect against cellular damage. Carotenoids are a group of phytochemicals found abundantly in Goji berries and are responsible for their brilliant burnt orange and red colours.
Zeaxanthin is the specific carotenoid in Goji berries and a 2019 research paper found that this polyphenol protects the retina and helps maintain blood glucose levels in animal studies. These amazing berries also promote the innate immune system’s ability to inhibit cancer cell growth.
Raisins & Sultanas
A 12-week, randomized and controlled trial compared the consumption of processed snacks with moderate daily raisin consumption. The results demonstrated a significant beneficial effect on blood glucose, blood pressure and overall cardiovascular function at the conclusion of the study.
Sultanas may also help with appetite regulation by influencing the hunger signalling pathways in the gut and increasing satiety (feeling of fullness). This means that raisins and sultanas are considered a functional food, with definite health benefits for people with or developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
The ancient Greeks and Romans revered figs as a symbol of growth, prosperity and wealth. They have natural anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties and studies show that sun-dried, naturally-preserved figs possess a higher amount of active plant compounds. These help to prevent cancer, support digestion and reduce oxidative stress in the body.
Figs are also traditionally known for supporting male reproductive function, specifically sperm motility and quality. The antioxidants found in figs protect the lipoproteins in blood serum from free radical cell damage.
Mangiferin found in dried mango possesses antioxidant and hypoglycaemic properties. Dried mango can be helpful in regulating blood glucose and maintaining a healthy heart.
Historically, dates have been used in traditional medicine for tissue healing, respiratory disease, digestive disorders and fever.
The natural fibre helps support beneficial microbial growth in the bowel, which enhances digestion and immunity. Dates have the highest polyphenol content of all dried fruit and along with figs have the most complex nutrient levels.
Despite their sweet taste, the sugar content in dates is actually low to moderate. This means you won’t get a glucose spike from eating them.
The most compelling research in support of date consumption is in pregnancy and childbirth. Several studies show that eating dates in the last 4 weeks of pregnancy helps to facilitate cervical dilation, and prepares the body for labour by stimulating oxytocin receptors in the uterus.
The authors from a 2017 meta-analysis found that around 50g of daily date consumption reduced the active phase of labour in healthy pregnant women and decreased the need for further medical interventions, including labour induction. This is great news for women seeking to naturally and safely support their body during the final weeks of their pregnancy.
Prunes are dried plums and are perhaps most notorious/cherished for their role in reducing constipation. They have been shown to be more effective than an insoluble fibre called psyllium for the treatment of mild to moderate constipation.
Prunes are a good source of antioxidants and protect against LDL cholesterol oxidation, which prevents the development of heart disease and cancer. Another cool and unexpected fact about prunes is that they help prevent osteoporosis. They are high in the mineral boron, which is essential for bone growth and maintenance, particularly in trabecular bone tissue (the hip and joints) as well as the lumbar spine.
Prunes have synergistic polyphenols that modulate bone metabolism. Specifically, they have unique active compounds that slow osteoclastic (bone breakdown) activity while promoting osteoblastic (bone growth) activity. This could be mainly relevant to postmenopausal women.
Even better, Arjmandi et al. & Rendina et al. demonstrated that the bone-protective effects of prunes was prolonged after the regular consumption of the fruit had ceased.
Dried Fruit and Preservatives: what you should know
Drying fruit and maintaining the nutritional value, taste and appearance is no mean feat in the world of food technology. If dried improperly, there is the risk of contamination with mould or bacteria, which spoils food and has potentially hazardous health effects.
One of the toxins produced by these moulds is known as Aflatoxin B1. Classed by the World Health Organisation as a ‘group A’ carcinogen, it is known to be a cause of liver cancer. Long-term exposure to Aflatoxin B1 can also cause immunosuppression.
To avoid this issue, chemical preservatives are a necessary part of the fruit drying process in some fruits that have a higher risk of attracting moulds and fungi. Common preservatives used in dried fruit are sulphites or preservatives labelled as the ‘200’s range’.
These days, thankfully, there are regulations around how much of any synthetic ingredient can be safely added to foods. Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) outlines the required safety assessments, which ensure that an additive or preservative is used within a reasonable technological rationale. This means that if a preservative is there, basically it’s because it needs to be. Further, on these occasions there are limits which have been established. These ensure that everyone, including children, can safely consume those dried fruits.
My preference as a mum, Nutritionist and conscious consumer will always be to choose preservative-free. If you can avoid or reduce the chemical load your body experiences on a daily basis, from food and your environment, your overall health will be better.
In clinical practice, preservative sensitivity commonly presents as headaches, nausea, skin flushing, dehydration and digestive upset. Some people have no idea unless they have prolonged exposure to preservatives. Children are especially sensitive to preservatives and the excessive consumption of sulphited-foods should be avoided where possible. The liver has to work hard to process preservatives, which can also disrupt hormone function, interfere with neurotransmitter activity and are linked to immune issues, asthma and cancer.
On balance, it’s just a matter of discerning what works for you. It’s important to choose wisely and moderately, check food labels and be aware of symptoms of potential preservative sensitivity.
Mediterranean Lamb Tagine with almonds and prunes
2 tsp. olive oil
1kg cubed lamb
1 large diced onion
1 tin chopped tomato
1 bunch chopped coriander
1 tsp. brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. paprika
½ tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. ground coriander seeds
½ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup water
Sea salt to taste
3-4 cups cooked rice or quinoa to serve
2 tbsp. toasted almonds
1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
- Heat olive oil In a large heavy pot over medium heat
- Brown lamb on all sides in batches (4-6mins each batch) and set aside
- In same pot, heat oil and sauté onion until soft and just charred
- Add spices and sugar, stir for 1 minute until fragrant
- Return lamb to pot, add tinned tomato, cup of water and coriander
- Cover and bring lamb to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally
- Continue to cook for 2 hours adding more water if needed
- In final 10 minutes add prunes and simmer, season if needed.
- Serve with rice or quinoa and sprinkle with toasted almonds and sesame seeds
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