Varieties of Dates: An Interview with Ammar Alheolo
Ammar Alheolo has a passion for dates, and he always has. As a native of Saudi Arabia, he said that the sticky, sweet dried fruits are a part of everyday culture in his homeland. Throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, dates are present throughout many parts of life, including wedding receptions, religious ceremonies, holy days, and celebrations. They are sold on the street by vendors, and traditionally break the fast of Ramadan. From their delicious taste and nutritional profile to their important cultural ties, the history of dates and the varieties of dates are rich.
What do you think of when you think of dates? You probably wouldn’t imagine multiple varieties of dates, but there are. In fact, there are around 300 varieties of dates found in Saudi Arabia. However, only about 6.8% of them are exported for international distribution. When Ammar came to the U.S. in 2016, he was greatly disappointed to find that the dates sold in the United States did not equally match the bold flavor profiles of the fruits from his home country.
According to Ammar, each of the varieties of dates has its own different and unique taste profile. He said dates are like coffee, meaning if one flavor does not work for you, it might work for someone else, and that your perfect date is sure to be out there. Each region in Saudi Arabia has its own variety of dates. From the Sukkari to the Ajwa date, there is much to explore with different flavors all over the country. Ammar is now focused on bringing in the many flavors of Saudi Arabian dates for American palettes to experience.
The Many Varieties of Dates
Most Americans are familiar with this date, which is one that is regularly imported into the United States. They are also commonly called deglet noor dates. These account for up to 95% of the production of dates in the United States. Medjool dates are known for their large size, soft texture to the bite, and rich flavor. They make an excellent substitute for sugar in baking by making a date paste, and also are delicious in smoothies. Medjools contain plenty of natural sugar. However, they have a low/medium glycemic index score because they also provide the right amount of fiber, which slows the release of carbohydrates and gives the body sustained energy.
Medjool dates are actually fresh fruit. There is no processing involved in their harvesting. Often called the “finger of light” for their color, Medjools have firm flesh while ranging in color from light red to amber. Medjool dates should be smooth-skinned, glossy, and plump to the touch. They should not appear cracked, dry, or withered, although they may be a little wrinkled. Make sure that you steer clear of Medjool dates that smell sour or have crystallized sugar on their surface. You also do not want any that are rock-hard to the touch. Just like with other kinds of fruit, make sure your dates are perfectly ripe in order to have a pleasant eating experience.
Medjool dates are a concentrated source of healthy nutrients, including vitamin B, calcium, iron, and potassium. Medjools could also assist with healthy digestion and support bone health. To best store Medjool dates, keep them in your fridge or freezer. They will stay fresh for months in these conditions.
Otherwise referred to as the “King of Dates,” the word “Sukkari” actually means “sugary” in Arabic. These dates are famous for being very sweet. The date can be enjoyed at two stages of its development. At its first ripeness, the fruit is soft and moist, bursting full of sweetness. When it is fully ripened, the sweetness remains, but the texture turns dry and crisp. Because of the versatility of the taste of this date, it is a perfect treat to be enjoyed at any time.
The Sukkari date is harvested in the Al Qassim region of Saudi Arabia, an area that is one of the largest producers of dates. Some believe Sukkari dates have various healing properties, including helping digestion to move along as well as healing tooth decay. Whether these specific claims are true or not, dates in general have many positive health benefits. We’ll discuss these benefits below.
Grown in the Arabian Peninsula, Saggae dates are naturally very sweet and luscious. This one of the many varieties of dates has an unusual texture. It’s sweet and crunchy at the same time, with wrinkles present in the fruit’s flesh. They’re less sweet and have more fiber than other types of dates. At the tip, Saggae dates are golden in color, while the rest of their body is brown and soft.
The fruits are extremely popular during Muslim holidays like Ramadan and Eid. Therefore, they must be ordered well in advance during busy times of the year. Saggae dates can be enjoyed in a multitude of ways, either eaten raw or pitted and filled with nuts or other fruits.
Cultivated in the Madina Tayyiba region of Saudi Arabia, historical evidence suggests that Ajwa dates have been consumed for over 8,000 years. Sources indicate that they continue to be the most popular type of date grown in the region. The fruit is soft, velvety, and very dark brown in color. The taste of the dates can be described as moderately sweet, with almost a “melt in the mouth” quality to it.
Ajwa dates are said to be packed full of nutrients that are awesome for the body. They contain a powerhouse of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and healthy fats, as well as a plethora of vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. Studies show that Ajwa dates consumed late in pregnancy could help with labor progression and could cease the need for artificially induced labor. In the Islamic religion, Ajwa dates are mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad and are praised for having multiple health benefits.
Also grown in the Madinah region of Saudi Arabia, Safawi dates are black in color and a cousin to the Ajwa date. They have a similar sweetness to them. They contain a high amount of calcium and are often compared to Medjool dates, as well. However, people with diabetes often choose the Sawafi date instead of the popular Medjool date because Sawafi dates provide a smaller amount of sugar. This makes them more comfortable to digest and helps reduce any spikes in blood sugar.
The Sufri date is soft and chewy in texture. This variety of dates is a beautiful golden brown color as well. They’re another popular staple in the Madinah region of Saudi Arabia and are enjoyed as a staple in the diet.
They’re not just fresh, juicy, and delicious. There is a multitude of health benefits that come from the Sufri date. These benefits include relief from constipation, intestinal disorders, heart problems, anemia, sexual dysfunction, diarrhea, abdominal cancer, and many other conditions. Sufri dates can be beneficial for gaining weight, as well. These dates are rich in several vitamins, minerals, and fiber, too. Sufri dates also contain calcium, sulfur, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
Overall Benefits of Dates
Getting enough fiber is extremely important for your overall health, and dates are great for doing this. Dates contain almost seven grams of fiber in a 3.5-ounce serving, so enjoying these fruits is a great way to increase your intake. When you increase your fiber intake, you will stay fuller for longer, experience relief from constipation, and be less likely to suffer from spikes in blood sugar.
Type 2 diabetes is an already large and growing problem in the United States and around the world. Finding foods that help manage this condition is crucial. Fiber is an important nutrient that can help control diabetes, and while it can be difficult to get enough fiber in your diet, enjoying dates in moderation can help make it easier.
Dates are also full of antioxidants, which reduce inflammation in the body and could help reduce the risk of certain diseases. The three antioxidants they contain the most include flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acid. Flavonoids help reduce inflammation and could help ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Carotenoids promote eye and heart health. Finally, phenolic acid helps lower the risk of cancer and heart disease. These are all issues that more and more humans around the globe are dealing with. Making sure you have a diet rich in antioxidants is important for preventing these issues.
Dates may also help promote brain health. One study with mice found that those who had been fed dates with their food had much better learning skills and memory function. They also had fewer anxiety-related behaviors, compared to those mice who did not receive dates. More research needs to be done, but what we’ve seen so far is encouraging.
There is still much that we can learn about the overall benefits of these wonderful fruits. They are healthy, delicious, and full of good nutrients for the body.
Ammar looks forward to continuing to bring the many flavor profiles of dates from Saudi Arabia to American audiences. With a rich history and colorful part in culture, learning about dates is both fun and educational. Exploring the varieties of dates and how they tie into the history of the cultures dates come from is fascinating.
Dates are fun and easy to add to diets. Try adding them to baked goods, or stuffing whole dates with goat cheese for entertaining. A date smoothie is a healthy and delicious treat that brings in the sweetness of a milkshake without a huge sugar crash later.
Enjoy the health benefits of this delicious and beneficial fruit, from the many vitamins it provides to its bountiful fiber. Nature offers treats that are both delicious and good for you. That’s a win for everyone, from senior citizens to young children.
Making healthier choices is much easier with options like dates available.