The California Dried Plum Board wants to emphasize the many nutritional benefits of dried plums as it seeks to capitalize on increasing production and growing international demand for the fruit.
The Sacramento, Calif.-based board represents 900 dried plum growers and 21 prune packers under the authority of the secretary of food and agriculture.
In 2013, crops yielded about 82,000 tons, down significantly from the 2012 crop, which produced nearly 138,000 tons. Zea attributed this drop in production to reduced acreage, as growers replaced about 5,000 acres with more profitable crops over the past five years.
Nevertheless, this year’s crop has rebounded and looks to provide nearly 95,000 tons. To make the most of this growth, the board is promoting prunes’ health advantages.
“One of the most important things we’re doing is elevating the importance of the many nutritional benefits of prunes,” said Donn Zea, executive director of the board. “We’re working with top researchers across the world.”
Recently, the European Food Safety Authority announced that dried plums have digestive health benefits. According to Zea, prunes are now the “only dried and fresh fruit that has this (authorized health) claim in Europe.”
“It took a significant amount of time and investment,” Zea said, mentioning that clinical trials in the United Kingdom had gone on for years.
“This has allowed us to step up activity on the nutrition side outside the U.S.”
Research is going on in the U.S. as well. A recent clinical study conducted at Florida State University found that a daily diet of dried plums can suppress the rate of bone resorption and have a positive effect on bone density in postmenopausal women.
“Nutrition has become an even higher priority in our marketing strategy,” Zea said. He also mentioned that other nutritional researchers have observed prunes’ benefits to heart health, as well as their antioxidant properties.
Prunes can sometimes suffer a stigma, so the board is actively working to create new uses for the fruit.
Currently, it is focusing on applications in baking, partnering with other grower and handler organizations to provide recipes and alternative uses for dried plums.
“Retail and snacking consumer packaging is still very much our mainstay, but there’s a whole other world out there — purees, pastes, diced plums,” Zea said.
“Prunes are (a) low-fat and low-calorie alternative that doesn’t sacrifice any taste. We’re working with a lot of chefs across Europe to work with our products in a finer culinary approach (for uses) in a restaurant setting.”
These new approaches are attracting attention internationally. According to Zea, Japan is one of the most important growing markets for prune exports. China too has quickly become a top market.
“One of the reasons for our success is that many years ago, we took the best prune in the world from France and started to grow it here, so we look at ourselves as a craft industry, as opposed to a producer,” he said.
“We’re always looking for ways to find improvement for the consumer.”