Baking with Dates

To Date or not to Date … That is the question

I’ve been thinking a lot about dates lately.

My favourite is the caramelly rich Medjool. I find that they make a great substitute for sugar, but every time I saw the sugar content on the package, my heart skipped a little beat.

I looked on the internet and everyone had a different opinion about them. Some think they’re great. Others say to avoid them.
So what’s the deal with dates? Are dates just like eating sugar?

First of all, dates come from the date palm, a type of palm tree native to Africa and the Middle East. Dates are thought to be one of the oldest cultivated fruits, in fact they are mentioned in the Bible. Apparently, being compared to a date was quite the compliment back then. The Shulammite maiden described her shepherd lover’s hair as being like date clusters, and Solomon, in turn, referred to her breasts, as “date clusters” and to “fruit stalks of dates”. Try putting that in your next Hallmark card!

There’s about 50 main types of dates and all differ in sugar content. The more dried a date is, the more sugar content it has.  You can even buy date sugar, which is made from dehydrated dates.

Are dates too high in sugar?

Most dates are 80% sugar content. That’s a lot! Let’s do a little comparing to put it all in perspective:

Dates have about six times more sugar and calories than most fruits. Five small apples have the same amount of sugar as about 4 Large Medjool dates.   It’s really important to keep this in mind.  One could easily get carried away eating dates.  So, if you’re sugar sensitive, you need to be cautious and mindful.

Should dates be considered a fruit or a sugar, in a sugar-free diet?

Because dates are so high in sugar, I wondered if I should count them towards my daily added sugar intake (I limit myself to 5 grams – just a little over a teaspoon a day). Let’s look at the bigger picture. While dates are dense in sugar, they are also very dense in fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins. In fact, dates are little powerful grenades!

Let’s look at the numbers (% in brackets is the daily intake recommendation of nutrients and minerals):

Unlike sugar and honey, dates are full of fiber. Why is fiber in sugar consumption so important? Fiber slows down the absorption of sugar to your liver, which helps to regulate how your insulin responds. You want your insulin to stay nice and calm, and keep those hunger hormones communicating well with your brain.  Fiber also fills you up faster.  Dates are also well known to have a … um … great housecleaning effect.   Just ask Sugar-Free Teens’ friends.  Let’s just say, you probably don’t want to be eating a bunch of dates the day before going to an amusement park.

Dates are also packed with nutrients and minerals…not just 1% and 2 % of daily values, but significant amounts. Sugar is void of any nutrition. To be fair, what you do with dates and sugar can alter the big picture. You can add sugar to a nutrient dense recipe or add dates to junk food. What I’m talking about here, is using dates as a substitute for sugar in nutritious baking. So, would it be fair to put dates in the same category as sugar and honey? I don’t think so. I consider it a whole fruit with loads of benefits.

Dates and the glycemic index/load:

Researching if dates are high on the glycemic index will yield you two different answers.  Research done by the University of Sydney in Australia had it at 103 on the Glycemic scale (out of 100). This alarmed me a bit. Apparently, those findings were found to be faulty and dates have now been re-assigned a GI of around 40-50, depending on the variety. Many find it more helpful to look at the “Glycemic Load” which looks at the bigger picture of each food. Dates have been assigned a GL of 14-22 depending on the variety. Bananas are assigned a 16. Both are considered a “medium” and will have a similar effect on your blood sugar. You can download the GI appendix PDF here.

So ..... to date or not to date?

There is no doubt in my mind that whole dates are full of benefits, and that for most people, they can be part of a nutritious and varied sugar-free diet. However, because dates are so dense in natural sugar, they need to be consumed with caution. Dates are very similar in sugar content to unsweetened raisins. 100g of dates has on average 63 grams of sugar. Raisins have 59. Dates do have twice the fiber and more nutrients though.

  • Listen to your body – Pay attention to how you feel after eating them. Being pre-diabetic, I personally wouldn’t eat a date on its own but I occasionally use them in high fiber recipes.
  • Use common sense – Some people find dates very addictive and a trigger for sweets. They eat them like candy. Oddly enough, as much as we love the taste of dates in baked goods, Sugar Free Teen and I don’t like eating the actual dates on their own. Keeping a supply of dates in the house isn’t a problem for us.
  • Make them the supporting character, not the star – When I make a recipe using dates, I usually end up with a half to one date per serving. In the grand scheme of things … a couple of dates a week, in fiber filled baked goods, is a very balanced way to enjoy this wholesome energy giving food!

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