There are times when size is not an indication of how nutritious a food can be. The subject of this article is one such case. In fact, it is said that the average man (and woman, I presume) can survive on just 10 of these a day in the desert. That’s quite something in itself! Have you guessed what I’m referring to yet? The fruit of the Phonenix Dactylifera or date palm (i.e. dates!).
Not just Deglet Noor and Medjoul
Many years ago, long before I moved to my new home in the desert I’d only seen dates at Christmas and around New Year, and perhaps at other special dinners. In Europe the most common dates sold, even to this day, come in a small polystyrene tray with a fake plastic branch. These type of dates are usually Deglet Noor, tend to come from Tunisia, and nine times out of ten they are not natural but processed, with added glucose (presumably to make them even sweeter and/or preserve them). For those who haven’t tried any other type of date I can easily understand why they claim not to like this fruit. With time, I have come to appreciate dates, their differences in textures, flavour, colour and taste, and now love them (with the exception of the glucose laden Deglet Noor, which I still can’t stand).
In recent years the health food trend has been to replace brown sugar and other sweeteners in recipes for more natural (ie unprocessed) foods. One of these alternative sweeteners comes in the shape of dates. Celebrity chefs and bloggers talk about Medjoul dates as if no other type of date existed. Well, I have news for you, according to my research there are over 2000 types of dates produced around the world, and over 199 different varieties in one Middle Eastern country alone, and contrary to popular belief the statistics published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) indicate that the biggest producer in the world is not Saudi Arabia but Egypt, followed by Iran and Algeria.
There are soft dates (e.g.Medjool, Khadrawy, Sukkari, Halawy) semi-soft dates (e.g. Deglet Noor, Zahidi), and dry dates (e.g. Ajwa, Anbara, Thoory). Some are suitable for eating only fresh, others can be dried. Asides from differences in texture, they also differ in flavour, from very sweet like the Sukkari – derived from the Arabic name for sugar – through the caramel flavour of Khalas dates, to less sweet varieties such as Khadrawy dates.
They can also range in colour from light golden yellow, going through half yellow-half golden brown, to golden brown, dark brown and black. One of the most expensive varieties of dates in the world, Ajwa, which are exclusively grown in the Madina area of Saudi Arabia, are black.
The Nutritional characteristics of dates
The nutritional profile for each variety differs somewhat, although they tend to have a similar properties.
Some proven health benefits are:
1. They have a large fibre content which among other things can help relieve constipation and control blood sugar levels (fibre slows down sugar uptake in the blood).
2. They are high in potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese, iron and vitamin B.
3. They are purported to have higher antioxidant properties than other fruits such as dry figs and plums, thanks to the levels of flavonoids, carotenoids and phenolic acid they contain.
4. They are high in carbohydrates (e.g. 1 Medjool contains approximately 18gm, 3 Deglet Noor dates contain approximately 16gm).
5. According to preliminary studies it can help induce labour and shorten childbirth.
6. They help keep the body hydrated.
Other claims are:
7. They help improve digestion.
8. They cure anaemia.
9. Dates can help stabilise blood sugar (although this depends on the variety of date!).
10. They may help regulate blood pressure.
11. They can protect against artherosclerosis and promote brain health.
12. They are claimed to combat infertility in males.
Some also believe that 7 dates a day have magical properties.
Dates, diets and diabetics
Dates are generally considered to be relatively low on the G.I. (Glycaemic Index) scale. This very much depends on the variety of date we are looking at, though. Consider the following varieties and their respective G.I. ratings:
Barhi = G.I. 49.7
Medjool = G.I. 39
Khalas = G.I. 35.5
BoMa’an = G.I.30.5
Therefore, if you suffer from blood sugar problems or are a diabetic you should be careful which type of dates you consume, and how many! Due to their high fibre content the release of the fructose will be slowed down, however caution is the key word. The Diabetes Organisation recommends you replace dessert with a medium to low G.I. date or other fruit. Keep in mind that according to research published in Science Direct “Dates contain up to 48.5% sucrose, and dried figs contain a mixture of 30.9% fructose and 42.0% glucose”.
If you are on a diet you should also be aware that dates, much like figs, and other dried fruits, can hinder weightloss due to their high calorie content. Again, the amount of kcal per date very much depends on the variety of dates. Just to give you an idea, 100gm of Medjoul dates, which is around 4 dates, contain as many as 277 kcalories! Although dates provide a healthier alternative to refined sugar and artificial sweeteners, you might like to use pure stevia leaf or raw honey instead if you are trying to lose weight.
What Traditional medicine says about dates
Traditional Chinese Medicine considers dates to be a cooling fruit, with the exception of the Chinese red date which is warming. As for all fruit, dates are considered an “empty” sweet flavour, which means it is too cooling or too cleansing for deficiencies (weakened conditions).
In Ayurveda they are also considered cooling fruits which additionally calm the mind (Sattvic) and directly nourish the Ojjas or energy. They are seen as a powerfood energising the body and immune system.
Nutritional trends promote dates as a natural sweetener which is all very well and good, but considered within the overall tendency for Western societies to prefer sweet flavours, overconsumption of sweet flavours might lead to imbalances. In TCM an excess in the sweet flavour from any source in your diet is said to upset the protein/ carbohydrate balance, weaken kidney-adrenal functions, and deplete minerals. As always, balance is key.
How to store dates
A little known fact among Westerners is how to safely store dates so they will last. As I mentioned above, some dates are best eaten immediately, others can be sun dried for use at a later date. The best way to store the latter is either to place them in an airtight jar and keep them in the fridge – this method can be used to store them for up to 6 months – or to freeze them – this method is best to store them for up to one year. Just bring them back to room temperature before serving.
How to enjoy dates
Across the world dates are associated with Ramadan, when dates and water are traditionally used to break the fast, but in the Middle East they are also served to guests on a regular basis, most notably Kholas (and Medjoul) dates are normally served with Qahwa, the traditional Arabic coffee. They might be served as they are or stuffed with nuts such as almonds, pistachios or walnuts.
Dates can also be seen stuffed with candied fruits such as oranges, or covered in chocolate, as well as paired with strong flavoured blue cheeses such as gorgonzola, Roquefort or Stilton.
They can be turned into a paste for use in mamouls (some of my favourite Middle Eastern desserts), or to make cakes and other desserts, in lieu of other sweeteners.
Other date products are date vinegar, beverages such as sparkling date drinks (similar to champagne without the alcohol), date honey and powdered date (sugar).
Personally I prefer both fresh or dried dates as they come, and I enjoy trying different types. Why limit yourself to Medjouls and Deglet Noor when there are so many other flavours to explore! 1947 types to go…