What are dates?

Dates are the edible fruit of the date palm. This is a flowering species of palm tree that grows in arid regions of the world, particularly the Middle East. These palms grow to heights of around 23m and have either a single trunk or several trunks growing from a single root system. There are male and female trees and kind of like humans, the males produce the pollen and the females produce the flowers and fruit! Unfortunately, because neither birds nor bees find the flowers attractive, the trees have to be pollinated by hand during late February. Date palms have large, vicious thorns around 10–15cm in length. No wonder they have to be removed before anyone can safely work on the dates! s

The dates begin to form in dense strands in April or May, which are thinned out in the centre of the strand to give the fruit enough room to grow.

At the beginning of August, before they’ve ripened, the fruits are covered with a muslin bag to protect them from birds and insects. The muslin bags also catch any that ripen ahead of the others. When the dates have ripened, using ladders or a mechanical platform, pickers fix a basket under the muslin bags and harvest by hand.

The dates are then sent to be sorted and packed. They usually contain a stone (unless they’re pitted, of course).

There are at least 30 varieties with the difference generally being the level of glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Some of the best examples come from the Gaza Strip and are a rich red colour and sweet. Another popular variety is Zaghloul from Egypt. Zaghouls are very sweet with dark red skin. They are long in shape and crunchy in texture. If you want luxury, try the Sukkary from Saudi Arabia. Although they are expensive, their dark brown skin, soft flesh and unique sweet flavour make them popular. And then there’s the Khadrawy, soft, dark dates that are popular among the Arabs.

Health benefits

With high levels of soluble fibre, dates can promote healthy bowel movements and relieve the symptoms of constipation. They also promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and can facilitate efficient absorption of nutrients from food.

You’ll find them rich in minerals selenium, manganese, copper and magnesium, which are all required to keep your bones healthy and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. They also contain high levels of iron, making them an excellent dietary supplement for people suffering from anaemia. This is because they can help increase energy and strength and reduce tiredness.

Dates are free from cholesterol and have a very low fat content, so eating a couple each day can help reduce your blood cholesterol levels and may even assist with weight loss. They are also great sources of vitamins A B and C and can act as a few your regular vitamin supplement. Those vitamins all help maintain healthy eyes, skin and mucous membranes. And, help to protect the mouth and lungs from developing cancer. Natural sugars glucose, sucrose and fructose are also great for a healthy boost of energy.

High levels of potassium and a little sodium, which can help keep your nervous system healthy and improve the alertness of your brain while also reducing your risk of heart disease and suffering a stroke.

The organic sulphur contained in dates is beneficial in helping to reduce allergic reactions and seasonal allergies. And interestingly, they can provide quick relief from alcoholic intoxication, having a sobering effect. So stock up and eat some next time you’re hungover!

Recipes

Dates are sweet and rich with a sticky texture. They can be bought on their stem or packed in boxes and are available stoned (pitted) or unstoned. Although fiddlier to eat, the unstoned variety usually has the best flavour.

Eat them as a sweet snack or chopped into porridge instead of sugar or honey. They’re also delicious as an ingredient in cakes, biscuits and desserts, and can be served with cheese, stuffed with almonds or coated in icing sugar. Dates are often used in North African dishes, particularly tagines and couscous recipes.

Energy ball recipes including dates: