Dried fruit may be seen by many as a healthy, nutrient-dense snack (especially if you ask Google). But are dates a welcome addition to a Keto or Low Carb diet and are they actually healthy?
What are dates?
Dates are a tropical stone fruit which come from the date palm tree (phoenix dactylifera).
The date palm tree is native to North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia - where its sweet, edible fruits have been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Dates grow in large clusters, similar to a bunch of grapes - but they're much bigger than grapes, averaging from around 3-7cm in length.
Their naturally high sugar content (60-70%) means that they are used in both sweet and savoury dishes, as well as simply being eaten as a fruit.
There are many different varieties of dates, but perhaps the most well-known is the Medjool date. Medjool dates are very large, usually softer than other dates and are caramel-like in flavour.
In modern times dates are commonly used as a natural alternative to refined sugar and sweeteners.
The Different Forms of Dates
When dates are ripe they are harvested either by hand or with the help of a machine. They contain a stone which is either left in or pitted, then the dates are enjoyed in a number of different ways.
- Fresh & Unprocessed
Despite what their wrinkled appearance may lead you to believe, not all dates are completely dried.
They actually develop their brown, dehydrated skin and sticky texture as they ripen on the tree - and can be eaten fresh, as well as dried.
Fresh dates are naturally lower in sugar and are far less wrinkled and sticky. However, once picked they perish very quickly and so fresh dates are usually only available to enjoy in the country they are grown in.
- Dried & Dehydrated
The most common form of dates are the partially dehydrated fruit you'll find in the dried fruit section of the supermarket - often savoured around Christmas time in the UK as a more exotic purchase.
Dates are dehydrated and dried both naturally via the sun and artificially within the food industry, to remove moisture and create a denser, stickier, sweeter fruit.
Like all dried fruit, the drying process results in a much higher, more concentrated source of sugar.
- Date Syrup
Date syrup can be made by heating dates in water, blending and separating out the insoluble parts of the dates. The resultant liquid is evaporated until it becomes a lot thicker and stickier, with a similar consistency to honey.
Like maple syrup and agave nectar, date syrup is a popular plant-based alternative to honey for vegan and vegetarian diets.
- Date Powder & Pastes
Date powder is made with fully dried, pitted dates which are ground and sieved to produce a powder.
The powder is sweet and very fine in texture, making it a great natural alternative to sugar for using in baking. It is also a popular choice in smoothies, to provide sweetness without the use of artificial sweeteners.
Date paste is made either by reintroducing liquid to date powder, or by cooking fresh or dried dates down in hot water before blending in a food processor. Again, date paste is a popular natural alternative to sugar in both sweet and savoury recipes.
Nutritional Profile of Dates
The nutritional profile of dates will vary depending on its variety as above.
The typical nutritional value of the most common variety of dates (partially dried) is below.
Date nutrition per 100g
Of which saturates: 0.0g
Of which sugar: 63g
Dates are naturally very high in sugar, with this amount only rising the more they are dried and dehydrated. They are not a good source of protein or fat, but are a great source of fibre. Most people will be surprised to know that per gram dates have more total sugars than many chocolate bars!
Aside from macronutrients, dates contain many beneficial micronutrients including potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese and Vitamins A, B6 & K.
Health Benefits of Dates
Dates are a natural source of many nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. Here are some of the reported health benefits of eating dates:
👉 High in fibre
You might have guessed from the tough, wrinkled skin of dates and its fibrous flesh that this fruit is a great source of fibre.
Perhaps one of the most well-known high-fibre foods, dates have been used as a natural remedy for constipation and to improve bowel function for centuries.
The high fibre content of dates also helps the sugar it contains to be digested more slowly, resulting in less of a spike in blood sugars after eating versus refined white sugar.
👉 Rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
Dates are a very nutrient-dense food, providing a spectrum of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in a very small package.
Eating dates will top up your intake of Vitamins A, B6 & K, as well as potassium, magnesium, copper and manganese.
Dates are also a rich source of antioxidants. These are compounds which protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals - which are linked to both ageing and a host of health conditions.
Compared with other dried fruits, dates appear to be significantly higher in the antioxidant carotenoids, flavonoids and phenolic acid - a plant compound which also has anti-inflammatory properties.
👉 Natural sugar alternative
Dates are commonly used as a natural sweetener to replace refined added sugars and artificial sweeteners.
As mentioned, their naturally high fibre content helps to slow down the digestion of the high sugar levels they contain, causing a lower spike in blood glucose compared with refined sugars.
Using dates as a natural sugar replacement also brings more beneficial nutrients to the table, whereas refined sugar is completely devoid of any beneficial nutrients.
However, it should be noted that dates are also very energy-dense and extremely high in sugar. This brings us nicely on to our next point.
❌ High in sugar
Despite the many nutrients dates contain which are good for us, there is no denying the fact that they are extremely high in sugar.
Although these sugars are completely natural and are absorbed more slowly, they can still cause a surge in blood glucose which is not good news for people with compromised metabolic health.
For this reason, eating dates often and in the long-term could be a risk factor for your health - as opposed to beneficial.
Are dates healthier than sugar?
Overall, dates are a "healthier" alternative compared with refined sugar and added sugars - IF we had to choose between the two. This is because:
- Sugar molecules found in whole foods such as dates are contained within their cell wall, so they are harder to absorb compared with refined sugar, food containing added sugar and 'free sugars' found in syrups, honey, fruit juice and processed foods
- Dates contain beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and - most notably - fibre, so they contribute to your daily recommended intake for these nutrients and are also great for gut health
- Most forms of dates are minimally processed and completely natural, making them Paleo friendly and suitable for those following a real food lifestyle
However, sugar is sugar and unless you eat dates in moderation - choosing dates over sugar may just mean choosing the lesser of two evils.
You can learn more about reasons to avoid sugar and - sometimes - sweeteners, in our articles below.
Are dates Keto?
No! Whichever variety or form of date you choose, this high sugar fruit is around 60-70% sugar making it extremely high in carbohydrates whilst low in fat.
A strict Keto Diet would not allow for any date consumption, as this would focus on cutting out all high carb foods such as dates.
Even if you were to enjoy just one Medjool date, you're looking at 18g carbohydrate and 16g sugar - wow!
Overall, there are many other sources of the beneficial nutrients dates contain, which are much lower in carb and far preferable for those following a Keto or Low Carb lifestyle.
If you're looking for a Keto friendly sugar replacement to use in recipes, there are also some much better choices than dates and date products.
You can learn about 5 of the best Keto sugar alternatives in our article below:
Hunter & Gather Unsweetened Sauces
We're condiment lovers and huge fans of ketchup, but we aren't fans of the ingredients ketchup usually contains.
In most store bought ketchups you will usually find a combination of added sugars, seed oils, artificial ingredients and preservatives.
What's more, so-called "healthier" varieties often utilise naturally occurring sugars, such as dates, as a sweetener. This may be preferable to adding refined sugar, but it still hikes up the carb and sugar content.
Our range of Keto friendly unsweetened sauces are made using ripe organic tomatoes, which are naturally sweet whilst low in sugar. So you can get your saucy fix with a delicious dollop of goodness and only 1g carb per 12g serving.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.