The Ajwa variety of dates is one that is cultivated in the Madina munawara region of Saudi Arabia. It is a black date that is sweet, with a fruity and fresh flavor. The dates tend to be small in size and have a soft texture. They are also considered to be one of great religious significance to Muslims, as Prophet Muhammad is quoted as having said, “One who eats seven Ajwa dates in the morning will be free of magic and poison on that day that he eats them.” Due to this, it is the most exquisite and pricey of the date varieties, especially in Saudi Arabia. Despite its costliness, the Ajwa variety of dates is always in high demand.
The Ajwa variety of dates is cultivated mainly in the Al-Madina region of Saudi Arabia. Efforts to introduce it to other date growing regions of the world have not been very successful and it appears that the particular climatic conditions of this region are the most suitable for its growth. A study done in Khairpur, Pakistan demonstrated that the growth of this variety of dates mirrors the growth of other plants commonly cultivated in Saudi Arabia. (Abul-Soad, Jatoi and Markhand, 2013)
Ajwa dates are harvested predominantly during the summer from May to October, and mostly during the hot months of July and August.
There are three main maturation stages for dates:
• Khalal stage in which the fruit is physiologically mature. The Ajwa date at this stage is hard and crisp and has a high moisture content (50 - 85 %). It is scarlet red in colour and is easily perishable and therefore requires more care in terms of packaging and storage.
• Rutab stage in which the fruit ripens further. The Ajwa date becomes darker in colour, partially-browning from the tip. It has a reduced moisture content (30 - 45 %). Its fibres are softened and it is also perishable therefore requires additional care.
• Tamar stage in which the colour changes becoming a darker brown almost black. For the Ajwa date, the moisture content is reduced (almost 10-25%) and the fruit is considered semi-dried. The texture also changes from soft and pliable to firm or hard, and the skin of the fruit also becomes wrinkled and pressed close to the flesh of the fruit. The fruit also has characteristic white streaks that appear on its skin at this stage. This stage is arrived at by allowing the fruit to ripen and dry while still on the palm tree. In this state the fruit is protected from insects. Due to its semi-dried state it can also be kept for a longer period of time without taking much special precautions. This stage is the edible stage of the Ajwa variety and this is the period at which it is harvested for human consumption.
When harvested at the Tamar stage, the Ajwa date is non-perishable. Micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi are unlikely to grow on it. It has a reduced uptake of moisture and thus the consequences of excessive moisture such as changes in colour and taste that occur during storage are unlikely to happen. At the Tamar stage, the Ajwa is ideal for marketing as ``semi-dried`` dates (Fao.org, 2016).
A mature Ajwa date palm tree can produce up to 150 pounds of fruit annually. Ajwa dates are mainly consumed locally within Saudi Arabia. The demand locally is very high due to the attached religious and health significance. Consumption is noted to be highest during the period of Ramadhan, with about 40% of the dates being consumed at this time. They are also consumed by visitors to Saudi Arabia who come to perform the Hajj, which is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
The dates are harvested at the Tamar stage when they are dry and have little moisture content. They are of high quality at this stage. Due to this, they do not require as much as care during harvesting and processing like other date varieties that are harvested at the Rutab stage. In the Tamar stage the fruit has been allowed to ripen and dry while still on the palm tree. The harvesting process is done with care to ensure that there is minimal damage to the fruit. This is usually done by having the workers climb the tree e.g. with the aid of aluminum ladders to pluck the fruit directly from its stalk. This is as opposed to shaking the tree to dislodge the fruit which could result in damage to not only the fruit but also to the tree and reduce its productivity for years to come. The fruit after harvesting is then carefully selected to ensure quality. Only fruit that is free of blemishes or signs of going bad is selected to proceed to market for human consumption. Any damaged fruit is either gotten rid of or fed to animals. When plucked the Ajwa dates are placed in special containers directly in which they are then transferred to factories for processing.
Exportation and consumer markets
Ajwa dates are mainly consumed locally in Saudi Arabia and the other countries in which they are grown. The dates can also be collected and packed in bulk for export. A small volume of their product is also exported to neighbouring Middle East and Asian countries such as India, and even to other distant parts of the world such as Africa, Europe and the Americas.
The Ajwa date is marketed either as whole dry fruit, or incorporated into other products such as pastes, candies, honey and syrups. This fruit is used for preservation and can be consumed all-year round. It can also be incorporated into other products as mentioned.
Due to the significance attached to this particular date variety, its products are quite pricey, and usually are in high demand.
Shelf life and storage
Because Ajwa dates are harvested in the Tamar stage when they have ripened and dried, they have a low moisture content. This gives them a long shelf life and thus they can be marketed throughout the year. The fruits can be packed in large cardboard containers for bulk sales and exports. They do not require special storage such as refrigeration although care must be taken not to store them in areas with excessive heat or humidity as this might harden the fruit making it unsuitable for the consumer. The sugar content of the fruit also increases in these conditions which may cause the fruit to go bad.
When being sold directly to retail consumers, they are packed appropriately in small containers made of transparent plastic which are sealed and due to their transparency the fruit is able to be seen by the consumer. The packing can be done either manually by hand where great detail is put into the task, or automatically by machines which pack the fruit based on their weights. When packed in this way, the dates can remain viable and fit for consumption for up to 2 years from the date of packing.
Ajwa date fruits are available in various forms. They are available as whole dried fruit, either with or without the pits. They are used in to make various products including cereal, bread, cakes, pudding, ice cream, cookies, candy bars, and novelty products such as date shakes. The date fruit can also be used in the production of juice, jam, wine, beer, vinegar, sugar, jellies, syrup, date cubes, honey, chutney, pickle, dip, date sugar powder, paste and food flavoring.
Nutritional content and health benefits
Dates are primarily composed of carbohydrates, about 40-80%, most of which is the reducing sugars glucose and fructose. They also contain a small amount of starch. The sugar contained in dates makes them a good source of energy that is easy for the body to digest. They contain a good amount of dietary fiber both soluble and insoluble. Dates contain at least 15 types of minerals in dates. Dates are very rich in potassium. They also have significant amounts of magnesium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus. The sodium concentration of dates is lower than other fruits which makes them suitable for individuals with hypertension or heart disease. Other minerals and salts that can be found in various proportions include boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. Dates also contain elemental fluorine that is useful in protecting teeth against decay. Selenium also found in dates, is believed to help prevent cancer due to its antioxidant properties and is thought to be important in immune function. Dates contain at least six vitamins. They contain a small amount of vitamin C. They also contain vitamin A as well as the B-complex vitamins: B1 thiamine, B2 riboflavin, nicotinic acid (niacin). Dates are a natural source of folic acid which is an important micro nutrient.
Dates also contains suitable amounts of essential and non-essential amino acids e.g. aspartic acid, proline, glycine, histidine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine and arginine thus increasing their nutritional value.
The Ajwa variety of dates is considered to be one of the most medicinal types of dates. Anecdotal evidence mentions their importance in treating many different conditions such as common colds and throat infection. Due to their high tannin content they are considered to be useful in the management of intestinal upsets as an astringent.
Ajwa dates also have anti- inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties which have been shown to have potential benefit in the management of chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. A 2015 study done on different date varieties grown in Saudi Arabia (including Ajwa dates) showed that they had in vitro antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. The extracts from all the varieties of date fruits tested showed that they contained components which have the potential to act as free radical scavengers in cellular reactions and as reducing agents in reactions that occur in vivo. Similarly, the date extracts were shown to cause inhibition of cyclo-oxygenase (COX) enzymes. This indicates that the date extracts have the potential to inhibit the production of inflammatory mediators such as prostaglandins and thromboxanes. This is due to the presence of compounds that can prevent the formation of the prostaglandin endoperoxide which is the precursor molecule that then leads to the production of the intermediate molecules that have a role to play in the inflammation process. (Sciencedirect.com, 2016) (Zhang et al., 2013)
They have also been shown to have protective effects on various organs such as the brain and kidney by protecting them against oxidative damage. In the brain, this effect is managed by the components of the date extract that are able to reduce the destructiveness of reactive oxygen species produced in periods of reduced blood flow to the brain. A study done in an animal model showed that this protective effect was able to reduce damage to the brain cells in the test animals compared to the control animals. Another protective effect of the date extract is the prevention of formation of abnormal myelinated fibers around the brain cells (Mohd Naim Fadhli Mohd Radz, 2013). In the kidney date extracts has been shown to have some effect in reducing the toxicity of certain drugs such as gentamicin, based on a study done in animals.
They are also considered to be useful in fertility. Anecdotal evidence mentions the consumption of dates as being able to aid in conception and in the maintenance of a healthy pregnancy. An important study was done to demonstrate the role of dates in the labour process. The study demonstrated that in women who consumed a certain amount of dates during their pregnancy, they were able to achieve a higher mean cervical dilatation, reduced need for induction and labour rise as compared to the women who did not consume dates.
Seeds and seed content
The seeds of the Ajwa date are oblong in shape with a rounded apex and have a rough texture. The seeds contain different trace minerals such as sulphur, lead, aluminum, cadmium and chloride in various proportions. Due to these contents they also have some anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activity similar to the date flesh. The extract from the date seed also exhibits some protective effects on the brain similar to the extract from the date flesh. This is possibly due to similar constituents in both parts of the date fruit that possess anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activity.