Dates: A Middle Eastern delicacy

Dates: A Middle Eastern delicacy
Medical research has found eating dates after fasting has great nutritional and health benefits. (AFP)
Updated 13 May 2018

Dates: A Middle Eastern delicacy

Dates: A Middle Eastern delicacy
  • Fasting can cause mild health issues such as headaches, low blood sugar and lethargy
  • Date palms are now grown extensively around the world

RIYADH: Dates are a staple food in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, both in their own right and as a common ingredient in local dishes. In particular, they form an important part of the diet of Muslims during Ramadan, when they are traditionally eaten every evening to break the fast.

The Kingdom is the second-largest producer of dates in the world. The UN World Food Program (WFP) and 30 countries around the world will this year receive 7,000 tons of dates donated by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief) in Riyadh. This was announced recently by Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, supervisor general of KSRelief, as part of a government aid program.

“The aid includes 4,000 tons of dates donated to the WFP, and another 3,000 tons will be sent to more than 30 countries,” he said.

In the Islamic tradition, dates are the food Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ate when he broke his fast. The date palm, called “nakhl” in Arabic, and the fruit, called “tamr,” are mentioned more than any other fruit-bearing plant in the Qur’an, and are symbols closely associated with Islam and Muslims.

There are several Prophetic traditions asserting the significance of the fruit, which has been cultivated in the Arabian Gulf for thousands of years. For example, Prophet Muhammad once said: “Break your fast by eating dates as it is purifying.” However, it is not mandatory to break the fast with dates, as in another Hadith the Prophet said: “If you have a date, break your fast with it. If you don’t have it, break the fast with water as it is purifying.”

There are many health benefits associated with eating dates, especially during Ramadan. They are rich in natural sugars and so raise blood sugar levels almost immediately after fasting, helping to rebalance the body’s systems. The high carbohydrate content slows the digestion process, leaving you feeling fuller for longer. It is advisable to have soup or salad after the dates to help your body get started again after fasting, and it is best if you wait for at least 20 minutes before having your main meal.

Fasting can cause mild health issues such as headaches, low blood sugar and lethargy. To help minimize the problems, it is a good idea to carefully plan and monitor your eating habits when fasting for the day. Dates are an excellent source of important nutrients such as fiber, sugar, magnesium, potassium and carbohydrates, so taking advantage of the benefits of the fruit during Ramadan is very important.

Dr. Hassan Mehdi, a doctor at a clinic in Riyadh, said that as well as providing much-needed minerals and energy to help you stay fit and healthy, dates prepare the stomach to receive food after being inactive due to fasting by activating the release of digestive juices.

Date palms are now grown extensively around the world. There are many varieties, with Amir Hajj, Saidy, Khadrawy and Medjool dates some of the finest, known for their rich flavors and superior quality.

The Ajwah variety, however, has particular religious and medicinal significance. The Prophet said: “Ajwah dates are from Paradise.” 

Researchers at King Saud University in Riyadh found evidence that the Ajwa date from Madinah contains active elements useful in the prevention of diseases such as cancer, and has anti-inflammatory properties similar to those of drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin.

The study, published in the US-based Journal for Agriculture and Food Chemistry, also found that dates contain many flavonoid glycosides, which have anti-oxidant properties. The inhibition rate in Ajwa dates is equal to commercial anti-oxidant supplements. Another benefit is that the sugars in Ajwa dates are monosaccharides, which makes them suitable for people with Type 2 diabetes. They also contain folic acid, sulfur, protein, copper, iron, fiber and potassium.

Seven Ajwa dates have about 120 calories. People who eat five to seven  every day have been found to be less susceptible to carcinoma and circulatory diseases.

Around 300 varieties of dates are found in Saudi Arabia. Of the total production of dates, only about 6.8 percent is exported.