Seven dates a day for three weeks are put to the test in a randomized controlled trial. (I’m talking about the fruit, not a planned get together.)

Dates are one of the healthiest sweeteners. I use them when I cook and bake, and you’ll find them as key ingredients in The How Not to Die Cookbook and The How Not to Diet Cookbook. You can blend them with water to make date syrup or use date sugar, which is a whole food—just dried dates ground into powder. As such, it is packed with nutrition and has as much antioxidant power as blackstrap molasses, as you can see in the graph below and at 0:24 in my video Flashback Friday: Benefit of Dates for Colon Health, but without the strong taste. (Not all brands are the same, though. For example, as you can also see below and at 0:31 in my video, Bob’s Red Mill may have twice the antioxidants compared with NOW Foods’ date sugar, though researchers tested only one package each.) So, dates are healthy compared with other sweeteners, but that’s not saying much. Do dates have any special medicinal properties?

There are papers in the medical literature touting the “therapeutic effects of date fruits…in the prevention of diseases via modulation of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-tumor activity” and discussing “pharmacological activities of dates fruits in diseases control.” You can see a figure below and at 0:57 in my video to illustrate this. But, what they don’t say is that some of this may be based on studies in which dates were fed to rats before they were then subjected to testicular ischemia by twisting their left testicle 720 degrees clockwise—two full rotations—to completely kink off the blood supply. Did the dates help? Who cares if the dates helped?! We’re talking about rat testicles. What relevance does testing the nut-on-nut effects of pecans on rat testes have?

Ironically, perhaps the strangest assertion is that dates help with labor and delivery, which is actually supported by randomized and double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, as I covered in my video Friday Favorites: Best Food for Late Pregnancy, Labor, and Deliver. So, let’s keep an open mind here. 

What about the purported anti-cancer effects? Researchers studied the impact of dates on our good gut flora and colon cancer cell proliferation. Our gut harbors about 10,000 billion micro-organisms and “is considered the most metabolically active site in the human body.” All sorts of crazy things are happening down there, and we can reward our good gut flora by feeding them prebiotics, such as dietary fiber and polyphenols, a class of antioxidant phytonutrients. Dates have high levels of both. Researchers blended some dates with some gut flora—fecal slurries donated by volunteers. (Have you heard of green smoothies? This is more like a brown smoothie.) What happened? Both the whole date extract and just the date polyphenols were “able to significantly increase the growth of beneficial bacteria.” They also assessed the ability of mixtures to inhibit the growth of colon cancer cells in a petri dish. As you can see in the graph below and at 2:51 in my video, even just the polyphenol extract cut cancer cell growth by more than half and the whole date extract nearly blocked cancer cell growth completely. “Together these data suggest that consumption of date fruits may enhance colon health by increasing beneficial bacterial growth and inhibiting the proliferation of colon cancer cells.”

It would have been nice if researchers had actually studied the effects of dates in the actual colon, but there had never been such a study—until recently. A randomized, controlled, cross-over, human interventional study looked at the impact of date consumption on gut flora growth and large intestinal health. Volunteers were randomized to either a control group or seven dates a day for three weeks, and researchers found “there were significant increases in bowel movements and stool frequency,” which was not surprising since the study participants in the date group were eating additional fiber. But, they also found “significant reductions in stool ammonia concentration…after consumption of dates, relative to baseline.” (My video Stool pH and Colon Cancer explains why that’s important.) “Furthermore, date fruit intake significantly reduced genotoxicity in human fecal water,” or human stool tea. A water extract of feces from someone eating seven dates a day causes significantly less genotoxicity, meaning significantly less DNA damage, which is good because that’s what’s coating the inside of our colon on a daily basis.

As you can see below and at 4:17 in my video, dozens of different date varieties have been pitted (no pun intended) against a variety of cancer cells in vitro—not just colon cancer and stomach cancer, which the dates might actually come in contact with, but also prostate, lung, and breast cancers. Of course, we’d first have to show that the active components are actually absorbed into the bloodstream and end up in those organs.

Here are some of my favorite recipes using dates: Date Syrup and Balsamic Date Glaze.