Dates are anti-inflammatory and promote healthy digestion. Dates even support a healthy pregnancy, and can help induce labour (yes, really!). They’re also low G.I., which makes them great for diabetics or if you’re monitoring your sugar intake.
How can something so sweet, so moreish and delicious be this good for you?
Read on, I’ll tell you everything.
History & Cultivation of Dates
Date fruit (Phoenix dactylifera) is a flowering plant native to parts of Northern Africa, Asia and Middle Eastern countries. Some historians have records of fossilised date trees at least 50 million years old. Dates have been cultivated from around 5000 BCE.
Dates are steeped in history, mentioned in the Bible, Torah and Quran. They’re an ancient symbol of prosperity, fertility and fortune. The date tree itself has been called the ‘tree of life’ by ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Dates have been a staple part of Middle Eastern diets for thousands of years. Merchants brought dates into Italy, parts of Europe and Asia. Eventually the Spanish introduced dates into Mexico and California by 1765.
Dates are small oval-shaped fruit, around 5cm long and 3cm wide. When plucked fresh from the date palm tree, they are red or yellow in colour. Dates are later dried, producing a dark and rich fruit. Dates grow on tall, thin palm trees which reach incredible heights. These trees can have canopies reaching up to 23m in height, with large clumping stems of date fruit at the top. These days date palms are cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. One of the largest exporters of dates is California in the United States.
There’s several cultivars of dates, all with varying shapes, colours and textures. Some date varieties are known as soft dates, which include Medjool, Khadrawy, Barhi and Halay dates. They are fleshy and sweet and very popular as a result. Then, there are semi-dry dates - Deglet Noor and Zahidi, which are less moist and have more textural bite. Finally drier dates, such as Thoory dates are very dry and hard and are known as ‘bread’ dates.
Medjool Dates - The Diamond of Dates
Perhaps the most well-known and delectable variety of dates are Medjool dates, originating from Morocco. Dates can be pricey due to their painstaking labour and cultivation processes. Because Medjool dates are so delicate and prone to disease and degradation, they’re often individually hand picked. I think they’re worth every penny.
Medjool dates are more than likely the dates we all know and love. They’re available widely in supermarkets, grocers and specialised stores. Medjool dates are a deep amber-brown, naturally dried and have a treacly flavour and texture. These beauties are glossy and slightly chewy with a melting softness that is just irresistible. They are a true treat, with hints of burnt caramel, resiny honey and cinnamon. All dates boast plenty of flavour, texture and of course, many health benefits.
Nutrient Content of Dates
A single serving of Medjool dates (2 dates) contains:
- 30g carbohydrates
- 1g protein
- 3g fibre
Dates are Low G.I.
Despite their sweet candy-like texture, dates are inherently a low glycemic food. It’s true they’re high in carbohydrates, but it’s how these carbs are packaged and delivered to the body that matters. This means you won’t get a ‘sugar spike’ from eating them as part of a well balanced diet.
The bioactive compounds and soluble fibre help ensure the natural sugar content of dates is digested slowly. This is wonderful news if you’re prone to indulging in a mid-afternoon sweet treat. Grab a handful of dates with a couple of your favourite nuts like roasted almonds or pistachios. You’ll hit your sweet craving without the negative side effects.
Polyphenols in Dates
Dates rank the highest of all dried fruit for their polyphenol content. The protective effects of plant polyphenols are widely documented. Eating plant foods with vibrant colours and healthy compounds is beneficial to your health. It's a great way to harness the principles of food-as-medicine. Of course it helps when foods are as delicious as dates!
Here’s some commonly found polyphenols in dates:
- Flavonoids - help reduce inflammation, protect against diabetes and some cancers
- Carotenoids - cardioprotective and are important for eye health
- Phenols - protects against cancer, oxidative stress and heart disease
- Anthocyanins - antioxidant, supports microbiome function
- Tocopherols - promotes healthy skin, protects cells from damage
- Phytosterols - cardioprotective and assists healthy cholesterol function
- Caffeic acid - anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties
Health Benefits of Dates
Dates have been used in traditional and modern medicine to treat various health conditions. The combination of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols make it a great snack for maintaining a healthy digestive system. The soluble fibre also helps support intestinal flora growth which aids digestion and boosts immune function.
Dates help promote:
- Heart hearth
- Bowel function
- Digestive health
- Decreased inflammation
- Balanced hormones
- Healthy pregnancy & labour
- Postpartum recovery
Dates Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Studies have shown several anti-cancer effects of dates. One lab examined the effects of dates on breast cancer cells. In this study, dates appeared to cause cancer cell death due to their polyphenol activity. The authors suggest that dates should be considered alongside chemotherapy drugs in the treatment for breast cancer.
Another report published in the Journal of ethnopharmacology demonstrated further anti-cancer activity of date extract on prostate cancer cells. In this cell study, dates appeared to break down cancer cell walls by inducing stress to the cells in vitro.
Dates improve Pregnancy & Labour outcomes
Consuming dates during pregnancy, particularly during the final trimester is positively correlated with better birth outcomes, according to several research papers. Studies have shown that women who eat dates in the final month of pregnancy have fewer caesarean sections and a more favourable labour progression compared to those who don’t.
Dates can stimulate oxytocin receptors in the uterus, which helps the phases of labour. Dates contain linoleic acid, which converts to prostaglandins in the body after being eaten. Prostaglandins help induce uterine contractions and help prepare the uterus for labour. The polyphenol content in dates increases antioxidant levels, which helps with pain tolerance during labour.
Dates also have a unique nutrient profile, making them an ideal snack during labour. The natural sugars and electrolytes give sustained energy and help the normal progression of labour. Eating dates in the latter part of pregnancy is considered safe and effective at reducing the need for extra birth interventions.
How to Store Dates
Store dates on the kitchen bench, tightly sealed for a week (good luck!). Or in the fridge for up to 6 months.
How to Use Dates
Dates are delicious and incredibly versatile. Enjoy them as an easy snack, add them to lunchboxes or have them complete a gorgeous cheese platter. They are a staple ingredient in any bliss ball recipe I could conceive, as well as delicious in any fancy baking.
Remember when buying Medjool dates, they usually come whole with pips, unless otherwise labelled as ‘pitted’.
Here’s some of my favourite ways to enjoy dates:
- Fresh on their own
- Stuffed with an almond
- Roughly chopped and sprinkled onto warm porridge
- Added to homemade Brazil nut granola
- Chopped and melted together with tahini for a delicious spread on toast
The Ultimate Sticky Date Pudding (Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free)
Hold onto your hats, folks. This recipe is the real deal. It’s a full-tilt, caramel-sweet pudding that will knock you out (and you’ll be happier for it). Using gorgeous Medjool dates, the result is moist, tender and sweet in all the ways you expect. It’s also deliciously gluten and dairy free.
This pudding is slightly adapted from the very talented The Merrymaker Sisters. Do yourself a favour... Make the caramel sauce to go with. Serve with coconut ice cream. It’s been nice knowing you all :)
Sticky Date Pudding
- 1 ½ cups almond meal
- 1 cup chopped and pitted Medjool dates
- 1 cup boiling water
- ⅓ cup coconut sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 tbsp. butter (swap for fridge-cold coconut oil for dairy-free)
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. baking powder (optional)
- 1 cup coconut cream
- ⅓ cup coconut sugar
- 2 tbsp. butter (omit for dairy-free)
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a 20 cm cake tin with baking paper.
- Place the dates and boiling water in a bowl. Leave to soak and soften completely.
- Meanwhile, cream the coconut sugar and butter until a paste forms.
- Add the eggs and vanilla extract, mix until combined.
- In a separate bowl mix the almond meal, baking powder and date/water mixture together.
- Add the butter/sugar batter and mix until combined.
- Transfer the batter into the prepared cake tin and place into the oven for 45 minutes until lightly golden.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.
For The Caramel Sauce
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together.
- Add the coconut cream and vanilla and continue to stir for 5 minutes until slightly thickened
- Ensure it doesn’t boil and the sauce is nice and smooth.
Al-Kuran, O., Al-Mehaisen, L., Bawadi, H., Beitawi, S., & Amarin, Z. (2011). The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and delivery. Journal of obstetrics and gynaecology : the journal of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 31(1), 29–31. https://doi.org/10.3109/01443615.2010.522267
Al-Farsi, M. A., & Lee, C. Y. (2008). Nutritional and functional properties of dates: a review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 48(10), 877–887. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408390701724264
Al-Shahib, W., & Marshall, R. J. (2003). The fruit of the date palm: its possible use as the best food for the future?. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 54(4), 247–259. https://doi.org/10.1080/09637480120091982
Bagherzadeh Karimi, A., Elmi, A., Mirghafourvand, M., & Baghervand Navid, R. (2020). Effects of date fruit (Phoenix dactylifera L.) on labor and delivery outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, 20(1), 210. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-020-02915-x
Eid, N., Osmanova, H., Natchez, C., Walton, G., Costabile, A., Gibson, G., Rowland, I., & Spencer, J. P. (2015). Impact of palm date consumption on microbiota growth and large intestinal health: a randomised, controlled, cross-over, human intervention study. The British journal of nutrition, 114(8), 1226–1236. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114515002780
Khan, F., Ahmed, F., Pushparaj, P. N., Abuzenadah, A., Kumosani, T., Barbour, E., AlQahtani, M., & Gauthaman, K. (2016). Ajwa Date (Phoenix dactylifera L.) Extract Inhibits Human Breast Adenocarcinoma (MCF7) Cells In Vitro by Inducing Apoptosis and Cell Cycle Arrest. PloS one, 11(7), e0158963. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158963
Maqsood, S., Adiamo, O., Ahmad, M., & Mudgil, P. (2020). Bioactive compounds from date fruit and seed as potential nutraceutical and functional food ingredients. Food chemistry, 308, 125522. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2019.125522
Mirza, M. B., Elkady, A. I., Al-Attar, A. M., Syed, F. Q., Mohammed, F. A., & Hakeem, K. R. (2018). Induction of apoptosis and cell cycle arrest by ethyl acetate fraction of Phoenix dactylifera L. (Ajwa dates) in prostate cancer cells. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 218, 35–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2018.02.030
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