Dates: An Ancient Fruit Rediscovered

Dates: An Ancient Fruit Rediscovered | Food & Nutrition Magazine | November/December 2019
Photography by Kate Cauffiel | Food styling by Christina Zerkis | Prop styling by Lindsey Parker

The history of the date is as rich as its flavor. Although their exact origin is uncertain, dates were first known to be cultivated in the Fertile Crescent between Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as 4000 B.C.

Date palms fare best in tropical and subtropical regions. They continue to be an important crop for Iraq, Iran, Arabia and North Africa west to Morocco. Since the early 20th century, dates also have been cultivated in southern California, Arizona and Florida.

Harvesting fruit from a date palm tree is a labor-intensive process that can take seven to 10 years. Wind pollinates date palms naturally, but to ensure an adequate yield, growers must pollinate each palm by hand. A worker may climb the same full-grown tree multiple times a day to trim sharp thorns, monitor air circulation and ensure proper sunlight exposure for dates to reach optimal size. Ripened fruit is then covered with burlap bags or nylon netting for protection from hungry predators such as birds and insects. Since dates don’t ripen simultaneously, this process is done repeatedly, picking fruits one by one until the harvest is exhausted.

The date’s location of origin is key to its multi-cultural, culinary relevance today. The fruit is prominent in the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, with date palms thought to be the original “apple tree” in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. In Judaism, dates are considered one of the seven holy fruits, or seven species, and remain an important ingredient in Israeli cuisine. Silan, a syrup extract taken from dates, is thought to be the sweet component of the promised “land of milk and honey.” In Islam, the end of Ramadan may be celebrated by indulging in ma’amoul (buttery cookies with date stuffing).

In the U.S., the medjool and deglet noor cultivars are the most common types of dates. Both were brought to the United States by “agriculture explorer” Walter Swingle. Thanks to Swingle, American medjools can trace their roots to a single Moroccan oasis, where he convinced a local leader to spare several offshoots for the journey home.

In the Kitchen: Whether eaten fresh or dried, stuffed or plain, mashed or chopped, dates are a versatile fruit. Thanks to modern chefs finding new uses to suit changing tastes, they are not going away anytime soon.

As concern grows over the high consumption of added sugars, consumers are seeking less processed sweeteners. With a 60 to 80 percent carbohydrate content (mostly glucose and fructose) and pectin capable of binding ingredients, mashed dried dates have become a popular ingredient in energy bars, smoothies and salad dressings. Date sugar, dried dates ground into a powder, is an alternative for granulated cane sugar in recipes.

Although there are similarities, each cultivar has distinct characteristics. Medjool dates have a soft exterior, chewy texture and caramel flavor. Their plumper shape makes them ideal in recipes calling for goat cheese or almond stuffing. In contrast, deglet noor dates are smaller with firmer flesh and a delicate, honeylike taste. They are an all-purpose date, good for baking or eating on their own.

Most types of dates are oval and 1 to 2 inches long. All dates contain a long, narrow seed or pit, but many retailers offer pitted versions for convenience. For recipes, expect 1 pound of unpitted dates to yield approximately 2½ cups of pitted and chopped dates. If pitted, 8 ounces of chopped dates is about 1¼ cups.

In the Clinic: A ½-cup serving of pitted dates provides 4 grams, or 15 percent of the daily value of dietary fiber; 10 percent of the daily value of iron; and 4 percent of the daily value of calcium. As a source of insoluble fiber, date consumption has been shown to increase the frequency of bowel movements.

For pregnant women, dates are a possible way to reduce the need for labor augmentation, or stimulating the uterus to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of contractions after labor’s onset. One study shows that although date consumption in late pregnancy did not expedite the onset of labor, it did aid in reducing the need for labor augmentation with oxytocin. However, a systematic review assessing multiple studies concluded that date consumption during pregnancy shortened the duration of gestation, increased cervical dilation upon hospital admission and shortened duration of the first stage of labor. Eating dates prior to labor may be a simple, yet beneficial treat.

In Quantity: Dates can be eaten fresh or dry. Fresh dates are succulent, with a 50 to 90 percent water content, whereas dry dates contain less than 20 percent water. While ripening, a date’s thin and papery skin transitions from green to a deeper yellow, brownish-yellow, black or mahogany-red hue, depending on the variety. When purchasing fresh dates, look for a plump, smooth surface. Be wary of very shriveled skin retaining mold. Fresh dates should be refrigerated and last up to two weeks before drying out.

Unlike fresh dates, which are in season from late summer to mid fall, dried dates can be purchased year-round. Dried dates have a six-month shelf-life when stored in a cool, dry place in an airtight container and will last one year if refrigerated.

References

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Bethany Oxender
Bethany Oxender, MS, RDN, is a clinical dietitian based in Ann Arbor, MI, specializing in weight management. Follow her on Twitter and read her blog, Urbann Arbor.