The date, that wonderful soft, sweet fruit, has been cultivated in the Middle East for millennia. We know it so well. There is a theory that ancient Assyrians invented what we know as Archimedes’ screw – for raising water up terraces – by copying the spiral pattern on the date palm tree’s trunk. Today, the date fruit has gained attention in the fitness and wellness world for the nutrients it holds and the sweetness it imparts. But while the fruit has readily attested health qualities, there are caveats that aren’t always acknowledged by proponents of dates.
Traditionally, dates are dried and eaten raw. But now, the fruit is part of a host of complex recipes, usually desserts. Dates are the new sugar. Just as sweet, but packed with fiber and essential nutrients the body needs, dates have taken the place of refined sugars and sweeteners in the health world, and is becoming more popular than natural sweeteners like stevia and honey.
The dense palm fruit has many health benefits, including a low glycemic value, which means sugar is released into the bloodstream slowly over time, as opposed to a quick spike.
However, don’t let the health benefits fool you. This small fruit is a sugar bomb.
In its dried form, as most of us consume it, the date fruit is composed of 85 percent sugar by mass. This means that the average date has 3 calories per gram. This translate into around 66 calories per date. Sixty-six calories. That doesn’t sound too bad. Except, who eats just one date? You probably end up having three or four, and suddenly you’ve consumed 200 or 260 calories without even noticing it.
Now consider this: many paleo, sugar-free and vegan baking recipes that are considered healthy don’t call for two or three dates. They call for two or three cups of dates – usually with the stipulation that these are packed in densely. And that’s not to mention the fact that the dates are usually accompanied by honey, maple syrup and other ingredients high in sugar.
According to the American Health Association, the recommended amount of daily added sugar intake is 25 grams or less for women, and no more than 36 grams for men. But these guidelines are for “average health and not optimal health,” clinical nutritionist Suzan Terzian cautioned. In other words, it’s better to consume even less.
Against that recommended maximum, one medjoul date has 16 grams of sugar. And while, clearly, only a portion of the two to three cups of dates in a pie ends up in a serving of the “healthy” dessert, that single serving probably has way over the recommended 25 grams of sugar.
As Terzian observed, even if a healthy dessert is made with a natural sweetener, “it’s still a dessert. And people tend to allow themselves to go overboard when a recipe is labeled ‘healthy.’” However, she reflected that if you are a healthy individual, you shouldn’t be overly concerned. Simply make sure to have a balanced diet that prioritizes whole, non-processed foods like dates, and remember to vary your diet.
Consuming too many dates can also get you into a sticky dental situation. The adhesive quality that makes dates great for baking also makes them great for bacteria looking to dig into your teeth. The little super fruit gets into hard-to-reach crevices in and around the teeth that can be almost impossible to reach with a toothbrush, allowing the brown syrup to become a pool party for bacteria for several days.
Those with good dental hygiene have nothing to worry about. But as Dr. Torunn Dalsgard of Snö Dental Clinic observed, the average person does not brush thoroughly, leaving gaps for bacteria that can lead to tooth decay.
None of this should be seen as an indictment of the date. It is a super fruit that is a wonderful addition to any diet. But as Terzian said, “I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors if I said they were completely healthy. They are still desserts, and desserts are to be had in moderation. ”
It turns out that our parents were right: everything is good – in moderation. Dates are not just good, they are nutritionally great. Just go easy on them.
Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for livehealthy.ae. When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.