One of the things I gave up for the Lenten fast this year was sweets. For those of you who don’t know, I have a sweet tooth. Maybe sweet teeth. In other words, I really love sweets! But I want to discipline myself in that area of my life, which is part of the reason why I chose to give them up.
Meet my new friend: the date. Nicknamed the “Tree of Life”, a Muslim legend says that it was made from leftover dust after the creation of Adam. It was probably one of the first cultivated trees in history and has been grown in the Holy Land for at least 8,000 years. Directions for date-palm husbandry have been found on bricks in Mesopotamia from 5,000 years ago. The word “date” comes from the Greek, daktulos, meaning finger.
Each palm can grow 100 feet high and bears clusters of 200, each weighing upwards of 25 pounds. They are sweet, fleshy, and oblong, growing around an inch in length. They attain a rich burnished brown color while hanging on the tree.
Nutritionally, 70 percent of the weight of a date comes from sugar; it is among the sweetest of fruits. They are an unusual fruit, too, as they contain hardly any Vitamin C. However, they are low in fat and rich in potassium and supply some iron. In fact, they provide 260% more potassium than oranges and 64% more than a banana. Dates are an excellent source of fiber; B vitamins; minerals such as copper, manganese, and magnesium; folic acid; and the trace minerals zinc and selenium.
The health benefits are plenteous. They contain a special type of soluble fiber. Beta-D-glucan is shown to decrease the body’s absorption of cholesterol and slow/delay absorption of glucose in the small intestine, balancing blood sugar levels. Because it also absorbs water, the fiber adds bulk and some softness to the stool, easing movement through the colon and elimination; it also slows transit through the intestinal tract. Slowing down gastric emptying promotes satiety longer and can aid in weight loss.
Studies suggest that dates are rich in antioxidants and anti-cancer properties. An extract may prevent free-radical damage to both fats and protein in a dose-dependent manner (i.e. the higher the dose, the more protection). In fact, in one experiment, the dates’ ability to protect against free-radical damage persisted in the presence of benzo(a)pyrene, a cancer-causing chemical.
While dates may be sold pitted, chew carefully. Some may also experience allergic reactions. Those who react to antigens from artemisia, birch, cultivated rye, Timothy grass, Sydney golden wattle, and Bermuda grass pollens may react with them, and are warned to be careful or avoid dates altogether.
Good-quality soft and semi-soft dates are smooth-skinned, glossy, plump, and can be wrinkled (not shriveled, cracked, dry, or broken). Dried dates should be significantly wrinkled but not rock hard. For an extended shelf life, place soft and semi-soft varieties in an airtight bag or container to protect them from airborne odors of other foods and insect pests. Stored in the refrigerator, they will keep up to 8 months; at room temperature, they keep a month or more. Dried dates, however, can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a year, or freezer for up to five years.
One of my favorite ways to eat dates is by slitting them down the middle, stuffing them with goat cheese and walnuts (optional), and drizzling honey over them. They are also excellent in hot cereals and can be substituted for raisins in breads, muffins, or cookies. I also eat them plain with a snack of cheese and crackers.
1. Ingram, Christine. Cooking Ingredients: A Practical Guide to Choosing and Using World Foods. Hermes House, London, 2010; p. 388.
2. Murray, Michael, N.D.; Pizzorno, Joseph, N.D. with Pizzorno, Lara, M. A., L.M.T. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria Books, New York, 2005; p. 271-274.
3. Margen, Sheldon, M. D., and the Editors of the U.C. Berkeley Wellness Letter. Wellness Foods A to Z: An Indepensable Guide for Health-Conscious Food Lovers. Rebus, New York, 2002; p. 271-272.