Dates and figs are available all year round but they always receive more attention around Christmas time. Both very sweet, they are perfect ingredients for festive treats but are also a great snack on their own. Figs oﬀer a bit more in terms of nutrients and less sugar but dates are more versatile and can substitute for sugar or other sweeteners in many recipes.
Fig trees are native to the Middle East but for centuries, they have been cultivated in the Mediterranean, North Africa, Asia and North America. Once harvested, fresh figs keep only for about a week, which is why most are sold dried. And dried figs, apart from being a convenient sweet snack, are packed with nutrients. It’s recommended we get at least 30g of fibre a day and just three dried figs provide 2.7g (and this includes both types of fibre — soluble and insoluble). Soluble fibre helps to make you feel fuller for longer and promotes healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, whilst insoluble fibre helps to keep your digestive system healthy and prevents constipation.
Dried figs are sweet because they contain natural sugars but as these come in a package with fibre and other nutrients, the sugars are digested more slowly and ensure a sustained energy release. Figs contain almost no fat but can contribute nicely to your daily intake of protein, vitamin K, several B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. These are all essential nutrients that your body needs and figs are an excellent natural source.
By eating six dried figs, you get 13 per centof your recommended calcium intake, 17 per cent of iron (8.5 per cent for menstruating women) and 12 per cent of vitamin K, which ensures healthy blood clotting. You also get 12 per cent of the recommended potassium intake, that helps keep fluids and minerals balanced in and around cells, a good dose of magnesium, which is essential for healthy muscle and nerve function, as well as copper — a key component of many molecules. All in all, figs are great!
Dried figs are an excellent snack food or ingredient for many sweet treats but do you know what to look for to get the best quality and taste? First, the ingredients list should say figs and nothing else — no added chemicals or sugars. Colour is important, too, and should be light beige to medium brown on the outside and a nice warm brown on the inside. Beware of figs that are very dark or almost black — a dark colour means rotten flesh, bug infestation or mould. If it’s just slightly darker colour, it can be natural colouring but never eat any black bits!
When it comes to dried figs, size matters — smaller figs are often better and you get fewer bad ones in the pack. And of course, whenever possible, go for organic.
TOP TIP: Fresh figs are delicious and healthy and you can use them as a jam substitute in raw food diets — just scoop out the flesh and spread on whatever takes your fancy!
Dates are the fruit of date palms that originate in the Middle East but are now cultivated all over the world in tropical and subtropical climates. They are incredibly versatile and their popularity is largely thanks to their natural sweetness.
Dates come in many varieties, shapes and sizes; they diﬀer in sweetness, colour, consistency and taste but
they have similar nutritional values. In the UK, you oﬅen get to choose between Medjool dates — the big, fleshy, caramel ones — and Deglet Nour dates — smaller, chewier, less sugary ones. Both give you a good energy boost but if you want to use them for sweet treats, Medjool dates produce the best results. On the other hand, Deglet Nour make for a good snack on the go and tend to be considerably cheaper.
Even though nutritionally similar, the quantity of nutrients per date varies, depending on the size and variety. As Medjool dates are big, just one date contains 16g of sugar, 1.6g of fibre, 0.4g of protein, 15mg of calcium (recommended daily intake is 700mg) and 0.2mg of iron (recommended intake is 7mg for men
and 14mg for women). To get a similar quantity of nutrients, you’d have to eat four Deglet Nour dates and you’d get slightly more fibre from them. And there’s more! Dates are also a source of vitamin K, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.
However, there’s no way round it — dates are very sugary so unless you’re doing a lot of physical work, you should watch your intake. It’s good to satisfy your sweet tooth with dates because they also provide a wealth of essential nutrients but they can add a lot to your total sugar intake. So on one hand, they are a healthier alternative to sugar but on the other, don’t overdo it!
Dates are a great fast energy snack for sportspeople and you can blend them with nuts and other dried fruit to make your own energy bars — or stuﬀ them with nuts or nut butters and cover them in chocolate for a decadent treat. Dates are also used as a natural sweetener in baking — chopped dates and raisins can entirely substitute sugar or syrups. And they can sweeten a smoothie or a blended coﬀee drink.
It’s a good idea to avoid dates with added sugar but if there’s a little bit of added oil that’s fine because it’s usually only a miniscule amount and serves to stop the dates from sticking together.
TOP TIP: For a natural energy drink, chop and blend pitted dates with water and you’ll get a delicious sweet drink to fuel your workout.
Did you know?
Aﬅer eating sweet foods, even if it’s natural sugars such as fruits, it’s best to have a drink of water to wash sugar residues away from your teeth and gums. It helps to keep them healthy and your body hydrated!