A Succulent Fruit with a Rich History
The sweet story of dates is as ancient as it is romantic. Spanning over millennia, the date fruit braved empires, nourished civilizations, and persisted until today. Infamous for thriving in harsh and hot climates, it is a fruit worth knowing deeply as it journeyed from the fertile soils of Mesopotamia to the arid desert of California. Sit back and enjoy this voyage through our history, from the perspective of the date.
From Root to Crown
Thoughts of a tropical beach getaway may conjure up the image of turquoise waters lined with tall swinging palm trees dotted with coconuts or bananas. So it might come as a surprise to some that dates also grow on palm trees but in a climate very different from our tropical beach. A date’s journey begins fifty feet in the air where they hang in large bushels from date palms. The date fruit is actually a berry: a simple fruit produced from a single ovary; and contains a single seed (stone). But to understand how this caramel-like fruit is born, we have to start where every good story begins; at the roots. Unlike most trees, the palm has Fibrous roots rather than Taproots. A taproot system is when there is one distinct root that grows deeply with few, smaller offshoots growing out of it. A Fibrous root on the other hand, is a collection of roots that are similar in size and length without a distinct root running down the middle. Fibrous roots are shallower than Taproots. This is important to know because palm trees love water and their fibrous system allows them to absorb water more efficiently and closer to the earth surface.
Crawling up the trunk of the palm you’ll notice another distinct feature. Most trees get stronger and give away their age based on the number of rings they develop at their core. A palm tree has no such feature. Instead, its core is made up of tough string-like fibres that run the length of the tree. What protects and strengthens the trunk instead are the cut-off bases of the leaves that have died. These tough fibres at the core of the tree act as an energy conductor from the root to the top where the “brain” of the palm tree sits.
The “brain” or heart of a palm tree is a large terminal bud from which new leaves grow throughout the life of the tree. A full crown of leaves is vital for the survival of a palm tree. This is striking because of the parallel a palm tree has with humans. Long ago, the Arabs said a date palm is at its happiest when its feet are in the water and its head in heaven’s fire. Like humans, the date palm is said to be social. It’s also said that a palm tree can die suddenly as if of a heart attack due to stress or emotional trauma. Palm trees are even collaborative. In Ancient Sumeria, date palms were grown with other fruit trees such as pomegranate, apple, peach, and fig, offering them shade and protection.
A Marriage Story
Like humans, there are also male and female trees and the female trees need to be fertilized by the male pollen in order to bear fruit, with varying chances of success. This pollen is found inside sacs of the male flowers which burst open hours after the spathe opens. The same thing happens to the female spathes when they’re ready for fertilization. For most plants in the wild, the wind carries the pollen from the male to the female tree. But in order to commercially produce dates, the female flowers are pollinated by hand. This marriage ceremony is done every spring, very soon after the female flowers open up as the female flower is no longer receptive to pollen just days after opening! Male pollen is dusted on the female palm tree by hand and sprigs of the male inflorescence are inserted among the strands to ensure fertilization. One male date palm tree is enough to pollinate 50 female trees with enough pollen leftover for the following year. In order to protect the fruit from animals and insects, woven bags are placed over every cluster. This bag also acts as a catching mitt for dates that ripen and fall off the cluster sooner than others.
Pick of the Crop
Dates are harvested gradually starting in late summer (August) and ending in November. Different date varieties go through the stages of ripeness at varying rates and therefore, need to be harvested at different times. Dates go through three stages of ripeness: Stage 1 is Khalal which is still hard, crunchy, and yellow. Stage 2 is Rutab which is when the date begins to soften, is still very moist, and turning brown. Finally, stage 3 is Tamr which is Arabic for “date”. At this stage, the date has fully dried (either naturally on the stalk or by human intervention). Amazingly, dates are edible at every stage and the Khalal stage is considered a delicacy. Traditionally, dates are harvested by hand and this method is still being used in various parts around the world. In modern date groves like in southern California and Saudi Arabia, palm trees are shaken by machines causing the dates to fall.
You may be wondering how one reaches the crown of the palm tree to harvest the dates. Farmers use rope straddled around the trunk and literally walk themselves up the side of the tree. This can be a very dangerous activity, given that palm trees reach the height of 50 feet and more; and falling is not uncommon. In modern groves, three-legged ladders are used while the palm is still short. Wooden platforms suspended by chains from the top of the palm are used for taller palm trees, and a ladder hangs from the same place. Growing a good quality palm tree is a less dangerous job than pollinating or harvesting it. Unlike most trees, palm trees are bred using their offshoots rather than their seeds.
Growing a palm tree from a seed has produced mixed results and always gives a 50-50 chance of producing a male or female tree. Female trees are more desirable as they are the ones that bear fruit (because, feminism). It’s also not necessary that a particular varietal seed will produce that same varietal tree. Because of its unpredictable nature, the date palm has produced thousands of varieties over its long history. Therefore, the only viable option to breed palm trees is through their offshoots. While this takes the romance out of the breeding process, this is the only way to ensure consistent quality dates that are moist, juicy, and delicious.
However, not all random breeding is unfruitful. There was an incident that produced a star date variety that has become the most popular in the West. When unpredictable new varieties come out from seedlings of unknown parentage they are described as “mejhool”, which means “unknown” in Arabic. And this is how the Medjool date was born. As to when it was discovered, appropriately, that’s also unknown.
The date palm is very resilient and can withstand harsh climate and heat. But as you can see, it takes effort, energy, and time to care for a date palm grove. It takes six to 16 years before a palm tree begins to bear fruit and it needs lots of water to feel nourished. However, the date palm dislikes rain, humidity, and cold weather. All these factors will damage the date crop and cause the fruit to rot or not fully ripen if it grows at all. It is no wonder, then, that the date palm thrives in the desert-like conditions of the Middle East. Which is where our journey takes us next.
From Old to New
The date palm is an Old World tree. Based on archeological evidence, we know that 50 million year-old fossils were found in the Fertile Crescent region (spans modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, northeast Egypt, southeast Turkey, and western Iran). Coincidentally, this is where the oldest civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and Sumeria, also existed. It is then quite appropriate and poetic that the date palm is known as the Tree of Life. It is believed that date cultivation began around the fifth millennium in Mesopotamia and from there, spread west to northwest Africa and East to northern India and the Indus valley. Dates are a historic travel snack that were first consumed to energize ancient people on their treks throughout the arid Middle East.
Dates of Light
The genesis and romanticization of the date fruit is intertwined with middle eastern culture, heritage, economy, and geography and perpetuated by their customs. Over long centuries of cultivating the date palm, Arabs developed a rich date-related vocabulary for which an equivalent does not exist in any other language. The nomenclature ascribed to dates was often reflective of the region they’re grown, a person’s name, or a description of the date’s appearance, taste, and texture. Some varieties are given peculiar names like beid-il-bilbil (nightingale’s eggs) or mlabbas il-ajooz (old lady’s candy). A more poetic story would be of how the variety deglet noor got its name. Deglet comes from the root word deqel which is hebrew/arabic for ‘date palm’ with aramaic and semetic roots. It was said that a pious woman named Noora was too poor to buy a rosary for prayer, so instead, she made one with date seeds. When she died, the people who discovered her body buried her immediately and the seeds from her rosary took root and grew into palms carrying delicious dates, which people called deglet Noora. Noor means light in Arabic.
Folktales and mythical narratives about dates were not limited to the Middle East. Stories of ancient Babylonian scenes show us that the date palm was seen as a divine gift at the time, with its imposing posture and abundance of fruit. It was used in sacred ceremonies and rituals and was so embedded in the Babylonian economy that to cut one down was punishable by law. Ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Antiquity had similarly enchanting stories. For example, Greeks and Romans loved the palm tree as a decorative motif. The tall marble columns that Greek culture is so known for have a curling bushy top evocative of the palm tree. Palm trees were even referenced in awe in the epic Greek poem the Odyssey.
From East to Coachella
From Mesopotamia to the Greek empire, how did the date palm make it west? The earliest known records tell us that the first attempt at introducing the date palm away from its native land was in Cuba in 1513. Tobacco flourished during this time but the date palm did not like the humidity. As the Spaniards moved northwards through Mexico and up to California, they left date palm seeds along the shores. Again, most didn’t grow fruit, and if they did, the humidity prevented them from ripening. The palm tree finally saw some relative success when Spanish missionaries planted seedlings in the drier regions in interior Mexico, southern California, and Arizona. It wasn’t until the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth century when the US department of agriculture and a group of adventurous and curious American horticulturists started importing offshoots until they were finally successful with good quality offshoots from Algeria, and later from Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia. In fact, this importing experience is what ultimately saved the Medjool date from extinction. A serious disease was destroying the Moroccan medjool crop. An American date expert managed to transplant 11 healthy offshoots to southern nevada. While two of them were destroyed, the remaining nine were transported to Indio, California. The medjool variety was saved from potential extinction largely due to the collaboration of the new world and old world. In the 1940s water from the Colorado river was brought to Coachella Valley (home of The 2019 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival) and the date industry flourished.
For our modern world, a palm tree is like a treasure found in a time capsule. The palm tree has spanned time periods, permeated the crevices of ancient cultures and connected them to one another. And now, it has made its way to the new world to remind us of where we came from and who we are. The date palm shows us that we all share a common thread that connects us to our past, and to each other.
Nutrition in Dates
Dates are a nutritional powerhouse. They consist of about 70% carbohydrates, 20% water, and even a bit of protein. Dates’ high carbohydrate content comes from natural sugars that are easily digestible in the human body. Easily digestible foods quickly turn into energy which makes dates a great pre-workout snack. These healthy fruits are also an important source of vitamins A and B which support the body’s immune system, metabolism, and muscle development. To top it off, one cup of chopped dates contains twice as much potassium as a banana.
In addition to being an excellent source of energy and vitamins, the dates’ nutritional composition aligns with the principles of the paleo diet and a whole food plant-based diet. Like the date itself, the paleo diet is inspired by prehistoric practices. The paleo diet encourages the consumption of foods that mirror a hunter-gatherer lifestyle like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats. Meanwhile, it discourages eating grains, dairy, and highly processed foods in general. Most notably, the paleo diet prohibits refined sugars which makes dates an easy alternative healthy dessert. A plant-based diet similarly emphasizes the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables.
Health Benefits of Dates
Are Dates Healthy?
Dates are undoubtedly the unsung superfood of the Middle East. The benefits of eating dates include decreased blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and alleviated digestive discomfort. One of dates’ most exciting properties is their ability to decrease triglyceride levels, a type of fat in the blood. High triglycerides cause plaque build-up within the arteries which increases your risk of heart attack, heart disease, and stroke. Therefore, dates help provide protection against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.
Dates and Gut Health
Dates are also an incredibly rich source of fiber and polyphenols, both of which have been proven to increase the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. In particular, these characteristics increase the growth of bifidobacteria, a key bacterium in the gastrointestinal tract. This bacterium, among others, enhances colon health by maintaining regular bowel movements and inhibiting the growth of pathogens. But to fully recognize dates as a gut health food, it’s important to understand the function of prebiotics and probiotics.
What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?
Prebiotics are compounds found in plant-food that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. Prebiotic foods include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables such as dates, apples, asparagus, onions, and artichokes. Think of prebiotics as fertilizer for a garden, they’re designed to help the good things grow. Both fiber and polyphenols act as prebiotics in the gut which is why these characteristics support gastrointestinal health. Meanwhile, probiotics are living microorganisms that help balance our gut flora. Gut flora refers to the billions of bacteria living in our digestive tract. A healthy gut flora aids the body with producing vitamins, fighting inflammation, and weight management. Examples of probiotic foods include yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and other fermented foods. There is no hierarchy between prebiotics and probiotics; they have a synergistic relationship. The prebiotic fiber in the plant foods we consume serves as fuel for probiotics. Without prebiotics, probiotics would starve off. Similarly, prebiotics alone cannot exert their health benefits on the human body. As scientists continue to learn more about the role of prebiotics and probiotics in the body, the gut health diet is gaining traction. This way of eating is designed to promote a healthy gut microbiome. In addition to those aforementioned, foods good for gut health include lentils, broccoli, bananas, and cacao.
Dates and the Immune System
The diversity of one’s gut flora is an important part of maintaining not just gastrointestinal health, but overall immunity against disease. Approximately 70% of your immune system is in the gut. The gut and gut biome help control what passes into the body therefore affecting the inflammatory response in the body. Along with other fiber rich fruits, vegetables, and legumes, dates are a delicious immune system-boosting food. Dates contain flavonoids, a compound within antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergic qualities. This invaluable property of dates help remove free-radicals from the body which can accumulate over time from exposure to pollutants, an unhealthy diet, and a sedentary lifestyle.
The Gut-Brain Connection
You now see how a thriving gut flora is beneficial to our gastrointestinal tract and the overall well-being of our body. But you may be wondering, how exactly are the gut and brain connected? In order to answer that question, we have to observe the methods through which the brain and gut communicate. One way is via the immune system which we discussed above. There are two more ways through which the brain and gut communicate.
In modern functional medicine wisdom, we’re told that the mind and body are one interconnected system. For in-depth learning about gut healing we love Dr. Mark Hyman who dives deeply into such topics as anxiety and the gut. We also love James and Dahlia Marin who are holistic registered dietitians specializing in plant-based nutrition.
Sugar and Dates
What is the Glycemic Index (GI)?
When searching for healthy sweet snacks a food’s glycemic index is an important consideration. The glycemic index (GI) is a rating system of how certain foods impact your blood sugar levels after consumption. High GI foods like white bread and corn cause sharp spikes in blood sugar levels which are followed by drastic crashes. Short-term side effects may include fatigue, irritability, and a headache. Over time though, these extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Sugary liquids like soda and fruit-juice are particularly dangerous because they digest even faster in the body, rapidly raising blood sugar levels.
Glycemic Index of Dates vs. Sugar
On the other hand, foods with a low glycemic index like dates are slowly digested in the body which keeps you fuller longer and provides sustained energy. Due to their low GI, dates are a great healthy snack for weight loss or anyone with an active lifestyle. What makes dates so remarkable is that they deliver incredible health benefits all while having a decadent flavor. When examining the glycemic index, dates beat out their processed competitors every time.
Refined sugars such as white sugar, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, and corn syrup all have a high GI. The glycemic index of sugar ranges between 65 and 105; anything greater than 70 is considered high. Meanwhile, raw dates have a GI of only 42, falling well below the low glycemic threshold of 55. Due to their high fiber content, dates slowly release energy throughout the body to fuel your organs, muscles, and brain. Dates are the perfect sugar substitute for diabetics because, unlike processed sugars, dates don’t spike your blood sugar levels. When combined with a small amount of fat such as coconut oil or butter, the GI of dates is even lower.
Dates are a Healthier Sugar Alternative
Due to their low glycemic index and surplus of health benefits, dates are an excellent natural sugar substitute. There are three main ways to utilize dates in baked goods: date sugar, raw dates, and date syrup. Date sugar is made from dehydrated dates that have been finely ground to resemble the texture of traditional sugar. Date sugar can be equally substituted for granulated or brown sugar in any recipe. They add a nice warm, caramel flavor. Raw dates are also the perfect ingredient for making an easy healthy dessert. Their sticky texture acts as a natural binding agent in cookies, brownies, and no-bake treats. This method of baking with dates is also great for healthy vegan desserts since traditional binders like eggs cannot be used. Lastly, try making your own date syrup! To make date syrup, boil chopped dates and strain out any excess moisture until the mixture mimics the texture of honey. Date syrup can be used instead of refined sugar by adding 2/3 cup for every 1 cup required. Date syrup is also a great way to add natural sweetness to salad dressings, plain yogurt, and your daily cup of coffee.
Is Naturally-Occurring Sugar Really Better For You Than Refined Sugar?
Let’s break down this question so as to avoid misconceptions about sugar. When we think of sugar, we tend to imagine the white crystal-like substance. This is also called sucrose and is a carbohydrate. When broken down to a simpler form, sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose. All sugar, regardless of whether it comes from fruit or vegetables is essentially glucose and fructose. So in a nutshell, all sugar in its simplest form, is the same. However, to appreciate and enjoy the sweet taste of sugar without the negative effects of it, we need to look at sugar in its original vehicle: WHOLE fruits.
Eating an orange (whole form) is not the same as drinking a glass of orange juice (processed form). It takes approximately three oranges, stripped of all of their fiber, to make one glass of orange juice. It is unlikely that you would eat three whole oranges in one sitting plus a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast (popular American breakfast). Therefore, drinking orange juice causes you to consume a larger amount of sugar at once than you would otherwise. Juice lacks the fiber meant to slow down digestion and absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and keep you full. So you’re more likely to increase your overall energy intake (calories) because drinking juice does not offer satiety and you will still feel hungry which will lead you to seek more calories. Essentially, eating refined sugar makes it very likely that you will consume more calories than you need. Therefore, when we talk about sugar in its naturally-occurring form, we’re talking about enjoying fruits in their whole form: with the fiber, the skin, and all the nutrients intact. Refining is the process of extracting and concentrating sugar from its original form. Nature did not intend for us to consume copious amounts of sugar in the processed form we’ve created with our modern machines. But it did create an abundant feast of tempting, colorful, and nutrient-dense fruits for us to enjoy as our brain can only use glucose for energy and our cells use polyphenols found in fruit to protect themselves from oxidation.
Sugar and Diabetes
The above information pertaining to the consideration of fiber intake in conjunction with sugar found in whole form is really important here. In a 2016 study done by Wang PY et al., it was concluded that “a higher intake of fruit, especially berries, and green leafy vegetables, yellow vegetables, cruciferous vegetables or their fiber is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.” This is a paradigm shift to the popular wisdom that carbohydrates and sugar may cause or increase the risk of diabetes. It’s always important to distinguish between sugar and carbohydrates in their original, whole, unrefined, and complex form versus the concentrated and refined white junk.
By now, you may have a new-found love for dates and you may be excited to implement them into your diet. We’ve rounded up three dessert recipes for you that are refined-sugar free, vegan, and gluten-free. They all use MAGICdATES as the crust so they’re convenient and quick to put together.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Bake Time: 35 mins
Yield: 16 squares
2 bags Original Chocolate or Coconut MAGICdATES
1 Cup (240g) of your favorite nut butter (we like Abby's Pecan Date Butter because it has BOTH the butter & date component)
Active Prep time: 15 mins
Passive Prep time: 2 hours
Yield: 12 cups
1 Package of your favorite flavor of MAGICdATES
1 Cup Soaked Cashews (soaked overnight, blend into small pieces)
½ Cup Pumpkin (canned OK)
¼ Cup coconut oil
¼ Cup Date Syrup (we love @justdatesyrup)
1 Tsp Vanilla
½ Tsp Cinnamon
½ Tsp Nutmeg
Blend all ingredients until creamy. Place into molds on top of crust and re-freeze for 1 hour.
Top with your face Dairy-Free Ice-cream! Hello @itshakunabrands!
1 package of Lemon MAGICdATES
1 cup of organic coconut milk
3 tbsp of date syrup (we like @justdatesyrup)
2 1/2 tbsp of organic corn starch
1 tsp of himalayan pink salt
1 tbsp of virgin unrefined coconut oil