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A Mellow Sweetness Packed with Nutritional Punch


By Benjamin Goodin

If I am being truthful, it is entirely because of the Internet that I know what a date looks like. I should back up a moment. It is entirely because of the Internet that I know what a date, the fruit, looks like. Until adulthood, even somewhat along that path, the only thing I knew of the appearance of a date was that it came in bulk bags from the candy aisle of the local farm-supply store, containing wrinkly, little malleable cubes dusted in a light coat of (something). To my young Midwestern mind, dates were something of an abstract concept: they were spaces on a calendar, or something that people in ancient, distant Bible and Koran stories were always plucking from trees and eating. Well, okay, I learned they grew on trees, and that was about it.  

If you are as hopelessly Midwestern (read: “rustic”) as I am, the concept of a date fruit probably evokes images of a bag of square, chalky gum erasers for you too, rather than a swollen fruit that would dangle from a palm tree. If you’re as geographically challenged as I am, you probably didn’t think anything but coconuts grew on palm trees. Like other tree-borne fruits, the date comes in a diversity of breeds. Much like the apple, different types of date — like zahidi, deglet noor, and thoory — have varying flavor profiles, from syrupy-sweet to delicately sweet. Varieties, again like apples, range in suitability for purposes: mildly sweet and nutty, the thoory date is known as the “bread date” because it is well-suited for baking; khadrawy dates don’t keep well and are considered to be one of the best varieties for eating fresh. The medjool date, the most commercially successful and prolific variety of date, grows to about three to seven centimeters — about the size of the average chicken egg (unit of measurement common in the Midwest). Unripe dates are firm, green fruits that grow in heavy bunches like overgrown grapes. Ripe dates, depending on the variety, range from peachy-orange to shades of reddish-brown and resemble oblong plums and sometimes pears, but they bear more in common with the former because of their high-gloss skin. Most come to resemble oversized raisins, for the skin begins to ripple and ridge as they dry. Drying and puckering doesn’t mean that the fruit is going bad, on the contrary, this is the preferred time to eat the date as it is fully ripened and the flavors are bolder. Ripe dates are sticky-sweet and mealy, a bit like dried apricots. Dates contain a pit, or “stone,” and although it won’t shatter your teeth and delight your dentist like a peach or nectarine pit, they’re not particularly tasty and haven’t seen much use in the United States outside of agricultural feed.

For their size, dates pack an enormous nutritional punch, especially in sugar. The sugar in dates is not of the processed or refined variety, but sugar is sugar, and it should be taken in moderation. A single 25-gram date weighs in just shy of 67 calories, and 65 of those are from sugar carbohydrates alone. The rest is comprised of dietary fiber, which is a significant six percent of the fiber you need daily. That same date contains one percent of daily protein. Where dates truly shine is in vitamins and minerals. 25 grams worth of date, a single medium-sized fruit, buys you three percent of the brain-health boosting B6, which is used by your body to manufacture serotonin and melatonin. You’ll also be receiving two percent of vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) to help your body break down and metabolize those proteins, sugars, and fats. Gram per gram, the date almost doubles the amount of potassium (167) of a banana (89.5). Copper and manganese are both present in quantities equal to four percent of the daily value for increased blood, bone, and metabolic health, with an extra kick of calcium (2 percent) to further strengthen your internal supports. The presence of magnesium in high quantities (3 percent daily value) helps to offset some of those sugars by regulating blood glucose levels and keeping the circulatory system healthy. Dates also have the distinction of ranking 80th on the top 100 Antioxidant-rich foods, right above red wine.

Date pits, in comparison to the fruit itself, aren’t used for much besides livestock feed on this side of the ocean. The pit comprises almost a quarter of the date itself and, considering that a single date palm will bear hundreds of the fruits in a single harvest, it seems like the pit should come to some more productive use besides being fed as a processing byproduct to sheep and cows. Apparently, there is a growing trend of utilizing the pits based on ancient traditions of those who peopled the lands that date palms are native to and, unsurprisingly, an increasingly diet-conscious global consumer population. Laboratory analysis shows that the humble date pit actually is rich in dietary fiber, protein, and concentrations of the same vitamins and minerals found in the fruit flesh. Byproducts like date seed oil have been found to have health and nutritional benefits very similar to that of olive oil, while others are finding that ground pits boost protein and nutrients in health shakes, smoothies, and even as a nutrient-infused flour additive. One can even manufacture an un-caffeinated beverage very similar to coffee with roasted date pits.   

Date fruit, on the other hand, has a very long culinary history in the US, and it is on rise again as the natural and whole-food trend continues to dominate popular taste. Dates have always been popular in baked goods because of their mellow sweetness and their naturally moist texture. Diced, dried dates inside of a holiday cookie or the much-maligned fruitcake are likely how most Americans were introduced to the fruit. Not only do they produce unique baked goods, but dates are very popular as a raw snack, stuffed with something savory like cheeses, or diced up with aromatic and fibrous greens. Dates are rising in popularity as an alternative to processed or inorganic sweeteners. Date paste, which is surprisingly easy to make at home, creates naturally sweetened and super-moist baked goods and tops toasts as a savory-sweet spread; I’ve even seen some beverages infused with the soluble sweetener. Dates are even being desiccated and pounded down in to a nutrient-rich, darkly colored sugar substitute.

Even though dates seem like sugar overload, some of their natural properties help your body to balance out and manage that sugar surge. In fact, they were long used as an afternoon snack that gave an extra boost of energy. In that regard, they probably have less sugar and certainly more nutritive value than grabbing an energy drink from the gas station. Otherwise, dates brim with healthful vitamins and minerals in each sweet, chewy bite. Prepared well and eaten in moderation, you can be among those who are discovering for themselves the flavor and health benefits of dates, just as the ancient people of the Middle East and Africa did so long ago.