Prunes have a bad reputation, so let's just call them dried plums, which is what they are, after all. It's widely known that dried plums can help maintain regularity, but researchers say they can also reduce the risk of colon cancer.
The reason is pretty simple: the dried plums help our microbiota -- also known as gut bacteria -- stay healthy. There are trillions of microbiota in our intestinal tract, and they play a major role in reducing inflammation that can lead to colon cancer.
"Through our research, we were able to show that dried plums promote retention of beneficial bacteria throughout the colon, and by doing so they may reduce the risk of colon cancer," said Dr. Nancy Turner, Texas A&M AgriLife Research professor in the nutrition and food science department of Texas A&M University, College Station.
Make all the prune jokes you want, but this is serious sstuff. Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. when men and women are considered separately, and the second-leading cause when the figures are combined. During 2015, colon cancer is expected to cause about 49,700 deaths nationwide, according to the American Cancer Society.
Turner said that plums have been shown to help neutralize free radicals that can damage DNA and lead to the growth of cancer cells.
"Our research explored the potential cancer-protective properties of dried plums using a well-established rat model of colon cancer," she said. "Dried plums contain phenolic compounds, which have multiple effects on our health, including their ability to serve as antioxidants that can neutralize the oxidant effect of free radicals that can damage our DNA."
In the study, rats were fed a control diet, or a diet containing dried plums, said Derek Seidel, one of Turner's colleagues.
Among other findings, the rats consuming dried plums had significantly reduced numbers of aberrant crypts, early precancerous lesions that are often considered to be a strong indicator for cancer development.
Turner said this data supports the hypothesis that dried plums protect against colon cancer, which may be due in part to their ability "to establish seemingly beneficial colon microbiota compositions in the distal colon."
She added that while additional research is needed, particularly in human studies, the results from this study are exciting because they suggest that regularly eating dried plums may be a viable dietary strategy to help reduce the risk of colon cancer.
The research was funded by the California Dried Plum Board and presented at the 2015 Experimental Biology conference in Boston.