Small brown, elongated and sweet, fruit containq a nucleus and pointed oblong. The date is the fruit of the date palm, native of the Persian Gulf. Over the centuries, it spread throughout North Africa, Egypt and India. Dates grow in on palm trees. Picked at maturity, they are dried naturally in the sun, which has the effect of concentrating the sugars they contain.
History of the date
With the coconut and oil palm tree, it’s the most cultivated palm tree in the world. Originally from the Euphrates basin, they where established within the oldest civilizations of Eurasia, it was grown from 6,000 to 8,000 years which maked it one of the most formerly domestic fruit trees. From its place of origin, it spreaded westward in all North Africa and eastward to India. Some argue without the date palm, the development of Sumerian and Babylonian civilization would have not been possible, and the expansion of the human race in the arid parts of the old world would have been significantly less.
The date palm is one of the few plants to survive in the inhospitable climate of the desert (very hot in the day, cold at night). Its fruits provided an important source of energy concentrated for nomads: 1 kilo of dry dates bringing about 3,000 calories. With an average consumption of 200 kilograms per year per people, the date was for these people a basic food, to which they added milk, yogurt, cheese or butter in order to balance the ration. Still today, in the Middle East, and North Africa, dates continue to play an important role. Nearly 90% of the production is consumed locally.
In addition to fruit, the date palm had many other uses. The trunk was used for the construction of houses, the basis of the palms in the manufacture of furniture, boxes, crates, cages and many other objects, as well as firewood. The fibres allowed to build ropes. The leaflets (small sheets constituting the large compound leaf) were used for making hats, fans and baskets. Finally, the stone was used to make jewelry and animal food. The date palm allowed people of the desert to live in a self-sufficient way even if they were isolated from the rest of the world. This tree met most of their basic needs, where the date palm was subjected to mystical reverence. Its leaves were used in many religious rituals, which some persist even today, as the Palm Sunday among Catholics and the Sukkot among Jews.
However, with the development of public transport systems in the 20th century, it became possible to connect the various oases in the desert to sell products produced elsewhere. Plastic replaced wood, palms and the leaflets of the date palm which were used to manufacture every day objects. The palm is now mainly cultivated for its fruits.
Global date production, which hovers around 7 million tonnes per year, has more than doubled since the 1980s. This puts the date at the 5th place among the most produced fruit in arid and semi-arid regions, after citrus, mango, banana and pineapple. It is the first among dried fruits, grapes, figs and prunes. It is produced in more than 30 countries, the largest being Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Pakistan and Algeria.
In addition to the fruit, which is harvested in 3 different stages during its growth (fresh, semi-dry and dry). People consume “honey” of dates (the pressed fruit juice), date sugar as well as the terminal bud and the heart of the tree. It also manufactures an alcohol with the sap and a coffee substitute with ground and roasted kernels.
The date health profile
Fresh or dried, dates are a good source of dietary fiber. Their high carbohydrate content actually gives a high energy content, ideal for intense sports activities. In addition, they contain a high concentration of antioxidants.
The benefits of dates
Although few studies have been done specifically on dates, several epidemiological studies have shown that a high consumption of fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and other chronic diseases. The presence of antioxidants and fiber in fruits and vegetables could play a role in this protection.
Rich in carbohydrates, dates are a good food to facilitate the function of muscles. As carbohydrates it’s a good fuel for muscles, dates can be useful during the practice of sport, especially during long time efforts, for example on foot or on bike, hiking, skiing, etc.
What is in the date?
Fresh dates contain a high concentration of antioxidants, mainly carotenoids and phenoliques compounds. Antioxidants protect cells in the body from damage caused by free radicals. Dried dates contain less than fresh dates, since a certain amount is lost during deshydratation.
Dates are made up 57% of insoluble fiber and 43% of soluble fiber. Insoluble fibers play an important role in the regularition and prevention of constipation. By retaining water in the colon, they increase the volume and weight of stool, which reduces transit time and facilitates the evacuation. Furthermore, studies have shown that the soluble fiber plays a role in the reduction of cholesterol levels as well as in standardization of sugar levels and insulin. Therefore, they can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
A serving of 25 g of dates (3 fruits) provides 2 g of fibre, representing 5% to 8% of the quantity of fibre recommended per day. Dried dates are a better source of dietary fibre as raisins, dried apricots and prunes, but they are less rich in fiber than dried figs.
The glycemic index of dried dates ranges from moderate to high. This index allows to classify foods according to their effect on blood sugar. The glycemic index of dates is variable, since their chemical composition (sugar, types of sugar, fibre content, etc.) is influenced by various factors, such as diversity, the composition of the soil and the degree of maturity of the fruit. Although the clinical utility of the concept of the glycemic index does not have the unanimite, health authorities recommends people with diabetes to consume more often low glycemic index foods, and less food with moderate and high glycemic index.
Risk of suffocation for young children
Young children can choke on consuming hard, smooth or round food. Hard dried dates and even those contained in cookies present certain risks. They have the same size as the esophagus (the tube that leads the food to the stomach) of a young child and they can stay stuck in the throat and block the trachea (the tube that leads air to the lungs). So be very careful.
Selection and conservation
But there are more in addition to fresh dates at an affordable price.
You can purchase them in grocery stores, Arab, Jewish and Indian date, as well as date syrup.
The syrup contains dehydrated and ground dates. It can be used in the same way as maple syrup: on pancakes, waffles, French toast, yogurt, or to glaze a poultry. Mixed with tahini, it constitutes a great snack.
Date sugar is the sap which is boiled and concentrated, in the manner of maple sugar. In addition, companies offer all these products on the Internet. You can replace refined sugar by date sugar in any dish. However you must take into account it doesn’t always dissolve, which, in some cases, may be a handicap.
Soak dry dates a few hours in water to rehydrate. You can also eat raw dates washing them under water. This allows to remove the syrup made of sugar.
Refrigerator. Put fresh dates in an airtight container, as they easily absorb odors.
Dried or dehydrated, dates can be kept 6 to 12 months, depending on the variety. Keep them in a cool and dry place away from light and heat, in order to protect them from fungi.
Ecology and environment
In the oases of the Sahara and pre-Saharan regions, the genetic heritage of the date palm is exceptional. In Algeria, it has inventoried more than 940 varieties. This shows the immense selection work conducted by the farmers over the centuries to maintain a high number of varieties. These have very various characteristics both by their degree of resistance to the climatic hazards, disease and insects, by shape, color, flavor and texture of their fruits. Experts believe that this genetic diversity is a natural shield against the degradation factors of the oasis ecosystem.
However, this genetic diversity is fragile and the preservation of many varieties is currently threatened, because of trade issues. Indeed, to meet the demand of the market for this fruit, farmers turn to a limited number of varieties with high commercial value. Thus, they ignore those who have less appeal in this regard, but which play an important role in the management of ecosystems.
A huge project was set up in order to preserve the genetic resources of the date palm. It was created by the ministries of the Agriculture of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, with the collaboration of the international plant genetic resources institute. It is funded by the program of the United Nations for the development and the global environment facility. In the context of a participatory approach involving all stakeholders in the sector, they work to select and multiply the most endangered varieties. They are looking to develop alternative markets to enhance the products of the dates species which are not grown on a commercial scale.