Dates are one of my favorite fruits. Sadly, where I live I rarely get to experience the fresh version.
Either way, dates – fresh and dried – are absolutely delicious as well as a nutritious traditional food. They are one of the oldest known cultivated plants, going back around six thousand years! But they are not only traditional for food. They are highly medicinal too.
Dates as Food and Medicine
The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine summarizes the medicinal benefits of dates succinctly in this scientific review:
Antioxidant activity is recognized due to the wide range of phenolic compounds present in dates including p-coumaric, ferulic, and sinapic acids, flavonoids, and procyanidins. Other study showed that palm date fruits constitutes thirteen flavonoid glycosides of luteolin, quercetin, and apigenin at different stages of maturity. Ajwa, types of dates that is only cultivated in Saudi Arabia/Al-Madinah Al-Munawara and have significant value in several types of diseases cure and also show protective role in hepatic [liver] toxicity. In this review, dates fruits has medicinal value are summarized in terms of therapeutic implications in the various types of diseases through anti-oxidant, anti-cancerous and ant-diabetic character. (1)
But why wait until you are ill to benefit from the antioxidant powerhouse of dates? Best to enjoy them, the primary fruit of the Arabian peninsula, for their delicious natural sweetening today!
What are we to look for in foods made from dates, like date sugar? Does it have some or most of the benefits of the whole or dried food?
Date Sugar History and Processing
First, what is this stuff? If you are getting a good quality date sugar then you should be getting little more than dried and ground-up dates! Thus, date sugar retains almost all of the benefits of whole dates, including their excellent nutritional profile. This is one of the few times a processed form of food probably deserves much of the praise of the whole form.
Good quality date sugar contains just dates. Period.
Dates, fresh and dried, are also traditional food with a long history of consumption. As mentioned above, cultivation of dates goes back at least six thousand years, as does their preservation and processing. Even today, many store-bought dried dates are made through sun drying, the same method used for many millennia!
But note, just like with cane sugars, some companies make, use, or sell refined and unrefined versions. Refined date sugars will not have the benefits of whole date sugars, nutritionally or otherwise. They also could harbor residues of bleaching and other toxic processing agents. Unfortunately, food labels on prepackaged and processed foods won’t make it clear which kind the manufacturer utilized to make their product.
Hence, seeing the term “date sugar” in the ingredients list of processed food does not guarantee the presence of a whole sugar. However, if you source quality whole date sugar, you can incorporate it into your culinary routine to create healthier sweets for your family.
When you make it yourself, the quality is guaranteed! No labeling tricks or hidden dangers from processing or packaging!
Date Sugar Nutrition
Date sugar, like many whole traditional sugars such as maple syrup and molasses, has a delightful flavor profile. Most date sugars, when used in cooking, will add a touch of a caramel flavor to the final product.
Using it for baking? Date sugar is a 1:1 replacement for white sugar. Be aware though, that date sugar does not dissolve easily. The solution to that is using date syrup instead. More on this option below.
In addition, compared with cane sugar, whole date sugar has an excellent nutritional profile. It is a rich source of potassium, fiber, iron, and magnesium. In addition, dates contain a wide range of trace elements like magnesium, selenium, and zinc!
Here’s a factoid to remember next time you suffer from leg cramps or muscle spasms. Dates have more potassium ounce for ounce than a banana!
When it comes to vitamins, dates are a good source of niacin (vitamin B3) and pyridoxine (vitamin B6). Adequate B6 is notoriously difficult to get in the modern diet dominated by processed foods as it is destroyed by heat.
Best of all, dehydrated dates, the form most available at the market, does not cause a significant loss to their nutritional value. Date sugar, which is simply dehydrated dates in granulated form, offers all the same mineral benefits. However, dehydration may cause a small loss of niacin and B6. (2)
Fiber and Glycemic Index
Whole date sugar retains its fiber content, which buffers sugar absorption, another benefit especially for those who suffer from blood sugar issues. In fact, this characteristic is quite unique! This results in a much lower glycemic index than a lot of other natural sugars, coming in at around 45-50. (3)
Plus, many of the compounds that make whole dates medicinal and praised in various research literature remain intact after drying. The big concern here is loss of these compounds over time due to aging and exposure to oxygen, light, and heat during transportation. I couldn’t find any studies testing dried dates off the shelf for how well these things held up between harvest and final consumption, but my hope and hunch is at least some does.
Date Sugar Compared to Other Sweeteners
When it comes to sugars, dates are right up there with honey and maple syrup for nutrient density. Date sugar also ranks super high for antioxidant activity. A recent study placed it second to molasses among all sugars. (4)
Date Sugar is GAPS Legal
When on a gut-healing diet, hardly any whole sweeteners are permitted including coconut sugar and maple syrup. This is due to the presence of disaccharides or double sugars. These substances are contraindicated while healing and sealing the gut wall to resolve autoimmune disease.
Alternative sweeteners like xylitol, erythritol, and sweeteners that contain them like Swerve are disallowed as well. The reason is the potential for negatively affecting the environment in which gut flora optimally thrive.
Honey and fruit are notably allowed on gut healing protocols. Since date sugar and date syrup are only made from fruit, they are permitted as well.
Because honey is ideally not ever cooked or heated, having date sugar as a sweetening option makes enjoyment of the occasional healthy dessert a possibility while resolving gut issues. The average time for gut healing is 3 years before food re-introduction takes place, thus this makes sticking to the diet and eventual success more likely in the long run.
Date Syrup Compares Favorably to Raw Honey
Research presented in 2015 at the Society for General Microbiology’s Annual Conference in the UK suggested that date syrup possesses anti-bacterial properties that rival raw manuka honey! (5)
Hajer Taleb, a research student from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK, discovered this effect by testing date syrup on colonies of bacteria growing in a petri dish.
A number of phenolic compounds that form naturally in the date fruit as it ripens are known for their antioxidant potential. They also happen to be anti-bacterial. Date syrup mixed with a range of disease-causing bacteria inhibited their growth within about 6 hours! These strains include Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Enterococcus spp. and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Does this mean ditch your raw honey for date syrup? Of course not. Just know that date syrup is a wonderfully healthy sweetener to have as an option in the kitchen to avoid using heated honey.
Date syrup is also safe to use for children under the age of one where raw honey is contraindicated. Thus, date syrup would be the best sweetener to replace honey in a homemade elderberry syrup recipe, for example, if you are making it for use by very young children.
Drawbacks of Date Sugar
The result of all this study of dates, sugar, and syrup? Even some mainstream doctors rate date sugar as the best! (6)
I might quibble a bit here, as I think raw honey, jaggery, maple syrup, and a few other sugars can give dates a run for their money, but at the end of the day, you can feel good going on a date or many dates!
But it does have some practical drawbacks.
One reason date sugar’s use is limited in the modern food industry is because of its properties. As mentioned above, it tends to resist dissolving in foods and beverages. It also doesn’t melt like other granulated sweeteners.
This makes it difficult to use in baking as well because it retains a crystalline state even after heating. The result is a bit of added texture to the final product. For puddings and other dishes that are supposed to be smooth, this is not desirable.
These downsides are easily remedied by simply using date syrup instead of the granulated version. Date syrup blends easily with any recipe and is a GAPS friendly alternative to any disaccharide containing sweetener that is disallowed on gut-healing diets. In addition, it can be cooked without a downside, unlike raw honey which should never be heated. Thus, simply substituting date syrup in any dessert recipe calling for honey is a much healthier way to go.
Is Date Sugar Budget-Friendly?
Date sugar has a higher price point than brown and white sugar. It runs about ten dollars a pound whether buying date syrup or granulated versions. Given its clear nutritional superiority coupled with the small amount needed and used by the average family, it is a price worth paying.
But unlike many traditional sweeteners that take a lot of expense and effort to make yourself (hello maple syrup and honey!), date sugar is one anyone can make at home. Thus, at the end of the day, the drawbacks of date sugar are outweighed by its overall awesomeness.
Homemade Date Sugar
If you have the equipment, making your own date sugar creates substantial savings for the food budget. And you don’t need much equipment to do it!
The process is super simple as outlined in the basic recipe below. Be sure to buy deglet noor dates only! Note that the most popular type of date at the health food store is Medjool. This variety is far too moist for making date sugar at home.
Why only deglet noor? When making date sugar you want dates that are REALLY REALLY DRY. The drier the dates, the better. This variety tends to be the driest I have found. You don’t want to purchase a moist variety and then have to let them dry out – you just paid for extra water you had to find a way to evaporate. Moist dates also generally gum up your food processing equipment, making it harder to make your own date sugar.
Homemade Date Sugar Recipe
Recipe for homemade date sugar, a traditional sweetener made from dried dates that is loaded with minerals, B vitamins and even has anti-bacterial properties that rival manuka honey according to recent research.
- 1 - 1.5 cups dried dates deglet noor only, depitted, preferably organic
Take the dates and toss them into a food processor or similar machine.
Pulse until thoroughly ground up. You now have your own organic, homemade date sugar.
Store in a sealed container in a cool, dark place so that the date sugar doesn’t reabsorb moisture or degrade in quality.
Have you discovered the delicious simplicity of date sugar or date syrup yet? How do you use them in your culinary endeavors?
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.