What About Date Sugar as a Sweetener?

With concerns of the high consumption of sugars or need to eliminate sugar from their diet, consumers are seeking alternatives to sugars, high-fructose syrups, processed and artificial sweeteners.  While there are a variety of alternatives, perhaps it is time to rediscover an ancient fruit, the mighty DATE, as a sweetener.  Besides being a highly sweet fruit, dates provide numerous health benefits, are readily available, available in many forms, versatile, and easily incorporated into recipes as an alternative for granulated sugar or enjoyed on their own or added to food.

Date cluster atop a date palm
Date clusters atop a date palm. Photo source: Canva.com

Dates are an ancient stone fruit with beginnings in the Middle East dating back to BC days.  Dates grow on trees known as date palms (Phoenix Dactylifera) in clusters like bunches of grapes.  The big difference is that the date clusters are some 50-85 feet above the ground and require considerable labor to produce and harvest.  An article by Food and Nutrition gives a brief description of date production and harvest.  While dates continue to be a major crop in the Middle East, they are grown in other regions around the world where conditions are right for them.  In the US, dates are grown in California, Arizona, and Florida with the largest production in California’s Coachella Valley, northeast of San Diego.  Here, 95 percent of US dates are grown due to ideal conditions:  high temperatures, low humidity, and an abundant supply of underground water for their love of wet feet.

There are hundreds of date varieties grown around the world.  Twelve varieties are found in the US with the two most common being the Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties.  Dates are classified as soft, semidry, or dry. Dates have a sweet, caramel-honey like flavor.  Fresh picked, they are sweet and succulent becoming sweeter and chewier as they dry.  Each variety has its own flavor profile.

Dates are packed with minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble).  One date (8g) provides 23 calories, 0.2g of protein, 6g of carbohydrates, and 0g of fat. Dates are a rich source of potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper, B Vitamins, Vitamin K and zinc. In addition, dates provide a high amount of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, flavonoids, and carotenoids. Despite their sweetness, dates are considered a low glycemic food and do not spike blood sugar levels.  All of this ‘goodness’ makes them effective at relieving constipation, lowering the risk of chronic disease, lowering LDL cholesterol, improving brain function, boosting bone health, and improving our immune system along with other benefits still being studied. 

Dates are an excellent sugar substitute.   In addition to naturally sweetening food, one gets the added benefits of natural fiber and dense nutrients.  Beyond the whole fruit itself, dates come in other forms or products:  date molasses, syrup, vinegar, sugar (crystals and powder) and paste.  University of Wyoming Extension suggests using these products in the following ways: “Date molasses or syrup tastes like molasses but with a less bitter edge. Use it as a liquid sweetener. Date vinegar, fermented from dates, is dark and fruity and an excellent substitute for balsamic vinegar. Date sugar, date powder, and date crystals are dehydrated ground dates. Use them in baking to replace white or brown sugar. Date paste is a smooth puree of pitted dates. It can replace butter, sugar, or eggs, depending on how it is used.”

Despite its name, date sugar is not really sugar. Date sugar is simply ground dried dates containing all the fruit’s nutrients — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—resulting in a product that is granular but somewhat fibrous.  However, the intensely sweet granules do look a lot like brown sugar made from sugar cane or beet.  It can be used to replace white or brown sugar 1:1 in many recipes for baked good but some experimentation may be necessary to adjust for sweetness or flavor.  Date sugar granules can also be used to sprinkle on cereal, fruit, yogurt, etc., but may not be desirable for liquid beverages as it does not dissolve well; date sugar powder is a better choice for these uses.

Since date sugar is different from sugars made from sugar cane or beet, it is no surprise that it creates a product slightly different than something made with sugar in baking and cooking. There are numerous websites that share tips and recipes for using date sugar in cooking and baking including how to make your own date sugar and paste. It may be necessary to increase liquid or decrease dry ingredients as date sugar is hydroscopic and absorbs moisture.  Date sugar burns easily so lower temperatures may also be needed.  For more specific tips and recipes, visit the PurDate website. Date sugar should not be used for canning. Presently, there are no tested, safe recipes for using date sugar in canning fruit or jams/jellies.  

Date sugar should be stored in an airtight container.  Being naturally hygroscopic, date sugar readily absorbs moisture and tends to clump together and may even form a solid brick. For this reason, some manufacturers mix other ingredients with the ground dates to prevent clumping.  Bob’s Red Mill uses a small amount of oat flour.  If date sugar does harden, Bob’s Red Mill suggests placing the date sugar in the microwave for a few seconds until it begins to soften.  Because date sugar is dried fruit, watch it for spoilage as it does not have an indefinite shelf life like sugar.

In summary, date sugar is a nutrient-dense sweetener containing beneficial fiber, minerals and antioxidants making it one of the healthiest sweeteners or sugar substitutes on the market.  It is not a highly processed, empty calorie food so it may be perfect for those who are diabetic or are trying to reduce refined sugar intake, add healthy nutrients to their recipes, or eat more natural foods. However, date sugar packs a significant punch of simple carbohydrates and calories, so use it with caution as you would with sugar or other sweeteners.

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Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer. 

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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