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.”