Research on what makes dates healthy

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Daisy

Two popular varieties of dates are under researchers’ lens to discover ‘healthy’ molecules. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) are using advanced techniques to analyse the health-promoting phytochemicals contained in ‘Khalas’ and ‘Deglet Noor’.

The moist, reddish-brown Khalas is common in the GCC and is popularly known as the ‘queen of dates’ while the Deglet Noor is popular in North African countries such as Tunisia and Algeria.

“Dates are known to contain phytochemicals such as flavonoids, carotenoids, polyphenols, phytoestrogens and sterols, all of which can have quite profound beneficial effects on human health. We are interested in finding out which of the ‘healthy’ molecules actually end up in the human body when someone eats dates,” said researcher Sweety Mathew, WCM-Q Project Specialist in Food Science and Health.

It is well-known that the natural sugars in dates make them ideal for breaking fast. That they contain large amounts of phytochemicals – naturally occurring plant chemicals that can lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, neuroprotective and antioxidant properties — is not widely known.

“And further, we want to know how differences in the phytochemical content of the two date varieties impact human metabolism and therefore health,” said Mathew. So rather than looking at the fibre, minerals and vitamins contained in the dates, we conducted experiments to analyse the presence and changes of phytochemicals in the blood of volunteers who ate dates after fasting for 12 hours. We then compared the outcome of this experiment to one with participants who consumed only a pure sugary drink,” she added.

This approach was inspired by an essential step performed in the pharmaceutical industry, where a new drug undergoes rigorous testing before it is released in the markets.

“On completion of our analysis, we will be able to say which of the date phytonutrients were actually metabolised by the volunteers and are therefore having a beneficial effect on the human body,” added Mathew.

WCM-Q is a partnership between Cornell University and Qatar Foundation.

The research team enrolled 21 healthy volunteers to take part in the study and took blood samples from them after they had fasted for 12 hours. They then gave them a substantial amount of Deglet Noor dates to eat, and took five blood samples at half-hourly intervals. A week later, the volunteers returned to the clinic and the process was repeated with Khalas dates. As a control experiment, the same process was also conducted with a glucose drink containing only sugar.

“We have now collected all of the samples and we are currently analysing them to see what the effect of eating dates is on the human metabolism. This is very exciting because it could potentially provide insight into which varieties of date fruits have higher concentrations of beneficial phytochemicals, which would allow us to make better dietary recommendations to help people protect their health,” said Dr Karsten Suhre, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at WCM-Q.

Date palms are an extremely important crop in the Middle East as they are extremely well adapted to dry, sandy environments. This project is part of a long and continuing interest that WCM-Q researchers have in the date palm.

“Since we have already sequenced the entire genome of the Khalas date cultivar and will soon complete sequencing of the Deglet Nour cultivar, the clinical trial of the date fruits study, along with metabolomics and genomics studies, will enhance a holistic understanding of the date fruits. To our knowledge, this has not been attempted before, and we believe it will pave the way to maximizing the link between date palm horticulture and human health,” said Dr Joel Malek, Director of the Genomics Core at WCM-Q. (Source)

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