Flatulence—or its more common term, farting—is a normal function of our body, particularly of a healthy digestive system. It is the accumulation of gas in the gastrointestinal tract, which is then released by our body through the anus. This gas comes from two sources: swallowed air and fermentation, which is the breakdown of undigested food by bacteria in our large intestine.
While this is a natural bodily function, excessive build-up of gas in the digestive system can sometimes result in abdominal discomfort, physical distress and even social disgrace. More often than not, it is caused by certain foods you eat, and prunes are one of them.
What are prunes?
Prunes are essentially plums that have been left under the sun to dry naturally without undergoing any fermentation owing to its high sugar content. Occasionally referred to as dried plums, prunes can be made from both the purple and orange varieties of this fibre-rich and nutrient-packed fruit.
Naturally high in both soluble and insoluble fibre, prunes are great for maintaining proper bowel function and lowering cholesterol levels in the body. According to the National Nutrient Database of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), a half-cup serving of prunes contains 6.2 grams of fibre. This provides 21 per cent of the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for men above the age of 50 and 30 per cent of the RDA for women in the same age bracket.
Prunes can be eaten dried or prepared as a syrupy dessert by stewing. Alternatively, it can be rehydrated and processed to make prune juice.
However, eating too many prunes may cause stomach pains and flatulence as large amounts of fibre can lead to bloating and gas. Consuming too many dried plums and other variants of this fruit can also lead to digestive side effects such as diarrhoea and laxative dependency.
How do prunes cause flatulence?
Prunes contain a few components that contribute to flatulence in different ways. When consumed excessively, prunes can produce several undesirable effects in the gastrointestinal tract, including flatulence.
First on the list is fibre. When you eat more than the recommended serving of prunes, you consume an excessive amount of fibre that cannot be digested completely by your body. When undigested fibre reaches your large intestine, it is fermented by gut bacteria to yield gas. Too much fibre increases the production of gas, causing bloating, discomfort and flatulence.
Prunes also contain sorbitol, a sugar-based alcohol classified under the Polyol group (the P in FODMAP). This organic compound stimulates bowel movement due to its laxative properties. 50 grams of sorbitol are sufficient to effectively relieve constipation, but you can only achieve this amount if you eat an extremely huge amount of prunes. To illustrate, half a cup of prunes (about 10 pieces) contains approximately 12 grams of sorbitol. Prune juice, on the other hand, has roughly 15 grams of sorbitol in every half-cup due to its concentration.
However, there are also scientific studies that can be traced back to the 1980s and 1990s suggesting that ingesting as little as 10 grams of sorbitol is enough to cause stomach aches, bloating, flatulence and even diarrhoea in some individuals.
Sorbitol is naturally found in certain fruits, albeit in small amounts. It is also capable of artificial synthesis to produce a substitute for table sugar. Sorbitol is metabolised very slowly by the body. Like undigested fibre, sorbitol makes its way to the small intestine in its unbroken form where it is fermented by bacteria that emit hydrogen gas as a byproduct. Again, consuming a high amount of sorbitol results in the production of more gas, abdominal distension, intestinal pain and severe flatulence.
Sorbitol together with chlorogenic acid, another active ingredient found in prunes, draws water into the large intestine in a process called osmosis. This sudden rush of fluids into the colon not only stimulates bowel movement but contributes to bloating and flatulence as well.
How can I avoid flatulence when eating prunes?
If you just started discovering the pleasure of eating prunes, make sure you do not go beyond the recommended serving. Slowly incorporate prunes into your diet and observe how your body will react. This will give your digestive system ample time to process this newly-introduced food and reduce your risk for severe gastrointestinal discomfort.
Additionally, you can take alpha-D-galactosidase, an enzyme supplement that assists in the digestion of certain food components, prior to eating prunes. This supplement helps reduce bloating and intestinal gas by breaking down the fruit’s complex carbohydrates before they find their way to your gut.
Whether you enjoy having prunes as a snack or dessert, or take them in order to relieve constipation, moderation is indeed the key.
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