Dates are not just for Christmas

It was on Christmas Eve 1959 that my cousin persuaded me to sample advocaat for the first (and last) time. I cannot be so precise about my first taste of dates but it would have been during a Christmas holiday, since in those days that was the only time they were available. Our dates came in flat, rounded-rectangular boxes with a picture of a camel on the lid. Inside was a twig-like tool to help lever the sweet sticky fruits apart, but we never bothered.

Dates are the fruit of the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, which has been cultivated for at least 9,000 years according to archaeological evidence from western Pakistan. There are over 600 date varieties, including cultivars, and their fruits are a staple food in many parts of the world. Dates are a good source of carotenoids, phytosterols, iron, B vitamins, vitamin C, polyphenols, minerals and fibre, while being low in sodium. The quantity and composition of the phytochemicals present vary widely depending on the date variety, geographical origin, stage of maturation and storage.

Dates are consumed at three major stages of maturity; khalal (fresh but hard), rutab (crisp to succulent) or tamr (soft and pliable). Unlike many other fruits, fully tree-ripened dates are a naturally preserved food that can be transported or stored for months without further processing.

Various parts of P dactylifera have been used in traditional medicine to treat disorders as diverse as memory disturbances, fever, inflammation, nervous disorders, sore throats, colds, bronchial asthma, oedema, diabetes, hypertension, cystitis, gonorrhoea, liver and abdominal troubles and to counteract alcohol intoxication.

Interest is growing in the potential medicinal properties of dates. For example, a recent study found that although dates in general have a high sugar content some varieties appear to have a low glycaemic index. A study using an adjuvant arthritis model suggested some possible anti-inflammatory uses and another in human subjects showed that consuming 100g of Hallawi or Medjool dates per day significantly reduced levels of serum triacylglycerol and very low density lipoprotein.

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