view current print edition




Date industry joint promotion focus: Dates are a fresh fruit

by Rand Green | September 22, 2010
It's a common misconception. Dates are often grouped together with such products as raisins and prunes as common examples of dried fruits. Raisins, of course, are dried grapes, and prunes are dried plums. To make that point clear -- and avoid the negative connotation some consumers have of associating prunes with a geriatric diet -- the California Dried Plum Board (as it is now called) now markets its products not as prunes but as dried plums.

But dates are not a dried anything. Dates, as found at the supermarket in whole or pitted form, are a fresh fruit. They are not dehydrated. They have not had moisture removed.

It is true that dates are low in moisture content -- generally around 30 percent or less, about the same as many dried fruits. But the difference is that the fresh fruits from which dried fruits are made start with a much higher moisture content, often around 80 percent. Removing the moisture typically extends the shelf life, intensifies the flavor and concentrates the nutrients.

While date paste and other processed date products used as industrial ingredients may undergo additional drying, the fresh dates on the shelves of supermarkets never had more than about 30 percent moisture to begin with. They grow that way naturally on the trees. And from the moment of harvest, they benefit from the natural concentration of nutrients that other fruits achieve only in the drying process.

The fact that dates are not a dried fruit but a fresh fruit is one of two key concepts on which the date industry in the United States is focusing its public relations campaign to make the public -- and nutrition experts -- more aware of the health benefits of dates.

Two organizations of date grows -- the California Date Administrative Committee, representing date growers in the Coachella Valley, and the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association, representing growers in the Bard Valley area -- joined last year in a cooperative effort to learn more about the health and nutrition benefits of dates and to communicate those findings to the public. In pursuit of that objective, they hired Charlene Rainey, president of Food Research Inc., as spokesperson for the industry. Ms. Rainey has since founded the Date Research Institute.

"We have been working with dieticians," both in California and nationally, to make them more knowledgeable about dates, and they “seem to be particularly impressed with the idea that dates are fresh.

Dates are the lowest-moisture fresh fruit,” Ms. Rainey told The Produce News Sept. 14. So getting that message out to dieticians and nutritionists, who can in turn pass the information on to their clients, has become a major focus of the industry’s joint promotion this year.

Sixty feet in the air “Dates are the only fruit that are naturally low in moisture when they are fresh,” she said. Dates grow in the desert, “hanging 60 feet in the air from strings, really,” and 30 percent moisture “is all the moisture they ever had. So when you go into the market” and see dates for sale in the produce department, “those are fresh dates, that are the lowest-moisture fresh fruit.”

But why does it matter that people understand that? The answer, according to Ms. Rainey, is that there is a perception among some people, “not necessarily true,” that dried fruits are less healthful than fresh fruits.

While many dried fruits are all natural, some products marketed as dried fruits have been infused with sugar or had preservatives added. Also, some nutrients such as Vitamin C may be diminished in the drying process if drier temperatures are high. By making it clear that dates are a fresh fruit, Mr. Rainey hopes to avoid any association in consumers’ minds with products that have been so processed.

Another major focus of the date industry’s health and nutrition awareness outreach is to promote dates as a heart-healthy substitute for added sugar in cooking and baking. An excess of added sugar in the diet has been associated with numerous health problems, and the American Heart Association recently issued a report suggesting that too much added sugar in the diet can contribute to coronary disease, Ms. Rainey noted.

Adding dates to a recipe instead of sugar imparts not only the desired sweetness but also “a huge dose of antioxidants, a big dose of fiber and a big dose of nutrients,” she said. “So we have developed recipes to replace added sugar with dates.”