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Clusters of ripening Deglet Noor dates hang from a tree. Link to photo information
Ripening fruit of Deglet Noor, a commercial date variety commonly grown in the United States, Egypt and other countries. Click the image for more information about it.

A Bright Future for an Ancient Fruit

By Erin Peabody
July 11, 2006

Maybe it's their dried-out skins, wrinkled from months spent in the sun. Or their lackluster brown hues, lost among the bright reds, yellows and oranges of the produce aisle. Whatever it is, dates aren't exactly flying off U.S. grocery store shelves.

But Robert Krueger, a scientist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Riverside, Calif., thinks we should take a cue from Middle Eastern cuisine and open our eyes, and stomachs, to these dazzling little gems.

With the help of University of California (UC) colleagues, the ARS horticulturalist recently uncovered new information about the date palm, including findings on the tree’s origins, its current state of diversity and how its impressive levels of antioxidants vary by cultivar.

Researchers have known for a while that dates are top-scorers in terms of their phenolic compound content. Also found in red wine, phenolic compounds are powerful antioxidants, capable of shielding our bodies’ delicate cellular machinery from the everyday assault of harmful free radicals.

Krueger, who works at the ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Citrus and Dates, and UC-Davis colleagues ran antioxidant tests on six dates commonly grown in California. It turns out that the Deglet Noor date--the kind most likely to be eaten by Americans--was their best performer.

Krueger, with Egyptian researcher Ashraf El-Assar and UC-Riverside researchers led by Thomas Chao, recently completed an extensive evaluation of the genetic diversity of date palms in Egypt. Egypt is the world’s largest supplier of dates, having grown them since about 3200 B.C.

The scientists found that while there’s much diversity among Egyptian date palms, the country’s date industry may want to round out its cultivated date groves with other, genetically different cultivars. Plant diversification guards against potential disease threats and habitat loss.

This research has important implications for the future of the date industry--and date palm diversity--which is centered in the Middle East.

Read more about the research in the July 2006 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.