Dr John Briffa: A date to remember

One lingering memory I have from childhood is the influx of festive fare into our home in the run-up to Christmas. December would see bottles of advocaat and Asti Spumante appear in the garage, and netting bags full of nuts would take up much-needed room in the kitchen cupboards. Another seasonal staple was dried dates.

My mother would fill these with marzipan to make traditional treats for the family. Despite the effort put into these ethnic edibles, what my siblings and I really craved was more customary confectionery, such as Quality Street. In later life I have got over my dislike of dates and now consume them quite regularly. Their increasing prominence on the supermarket shelves at this time of year is a sign that many of us see them as a stock item for the Christmas shopping trolley, too.

I suspect that one reason for the date's growing popularity is its sweet nature. More than half the weight of this fruit is sugar, and they therefore tend to do a good job of sating the sweet tooth that can bite some of us from time to time. However, nutritional analysis reveals that dates are a good degree healthier than other sugar-charged foods that we may be tempted to consume. Dates are rich in a range of nutritional goodies you'd be hard pressed to find in a handful of Ferrero Rocher or a slice of yule log.

Some of the date's dietary attributes come in the form of nutrients, including vitamins B1, B2 and B3. These B-vitamins have a variety of roles in the body, one of which is to help in the reactions that convert food into energy. Other health-giving nutrients to be found in dates include the minerals boron and calcium (both of which help maintain strong bones), selenium (which is believed to have cancer-protective properties) and zinc (which helps maintain a healthy immune system). It seems out-of-date nutrients have much to offer in terms of body benefits.

Another of the date's principal components is fibre. Actually, gram for gram, dates contain two or three times the fibre found in green vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. The predominant type of fibre in dates is what is known as a soluble fibre. As its name suggests, soluble fibre has the capacity to dissolve in water, and forms a gel-like substance within the gut. Dates are rich in one particular type of soluble fibre, known as pectin. One effect of pectin is to slow the speed at which food leaves the stomach, an action which is believed to help put a brake on the appetite. The fibre content of dates also seems to help temper the speed with which they release their sugar into the bloodstream. Studies reveal that dates, despite their intense sugariness, give a relatively slow, sustained release of energy into the system - an effect which helps to maintain energy levels and keep an over-active appetite at bay. For those looking for a healthy sweet treat this Christmas, make it a date.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.