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THE RIGHT CHEMISTRY: Investigating the benefits of dates

A Palestinian man prepares his dates to sell in the West Bank city of Jericho in 2010.
A Palestinian man prepares his dates to sell in the West Bank city of Jericho in 2010.

Like any fruit, dates harbour hundreds of compounds, including vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, carotenoids, glucans, steroids and saponins.

By Joe Schwarcz

It’s tough to be a lab rat. Learning to navigate a maze or having your ano-genital distance measured to monitor exposure to endocrine disruptors is unpleasant enough, but not nearly as troubling as having one of your testicles twisted 720 degrees so that researchers can study the effects of antioxidants on testicular torsion. In men, testicular torsion is a medical emergency that requires quick treatment. This occurs when the spermatic cord, which provides blood flow to the testicles, rotates and becomes twisted. As a result, the testicles’ blood supply is cut off causing sudden pain and swelling. If a physician cannot resolve the problem by manual manipulation, the patient is off to surgery. Untwisting the spermatic cord restores the blood flow but introduces another problem. The sudden influx of oxygenated blood leads to the formation of free radicals that can lead to tissue damage. The presence of antioxidants can conceivably prevent such damage.

That is exactly what researchers were interested in investigating. They chose an extract of dates as a source of readily available antioxidants, but could have chosen a variety of fruits or vegetables. Rats were treated with the date extract through a tube introduced into their stomach and subsequently had one of their testicles surgically rotated. After torsion had been introduced, the problem was resolved surgically and the effects on the testicle were studied and compared with that in rats that had not been pretreated with the date extract. The researchers report that the date extract had a protective effect.

What does one take away from such a study? Certainly not that men should be walking around with dates in their pocket to be consumed in case testicular torsion presents. Neither can one conclude that there is something special about dates; all fruits and vegetables contain an array of antioxidants. The only message is that it may be worthwhile to study whether treating men who are about to undergo testicular detorsion with antioxidants yields a benefit. Of course, it would be easy to fabricate a sensational headline from this study. For example, “Dates can prevent testicular damage in men” would certainly garner attention. While I haven’t actually seen such a headline, I have seen articles that talk about curing cancer with dates.

It seems these are based upon a paper published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine with the title “Therapeutic effects of date fruits in the prevention of diseases via modulation of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-tumour activity.” The notion that the sweetest fruit in existence would produce such sweet science is seductive, but I would suggest that this paper does not provide evidence to justify this title. The authors begin with a statement that the current treatment of cancer and diabetes is expensive and has adverse effects and that an alternative approach that is safe, effective and affordable is needed. Nobody would contest that. Then, they go on to say that natural products are a good remedy as they are inexpensive and easy to access without complications. That may be, but what about efficacy?

The researchers who hail from Qassim University in Saudi Arabia and Suez Canal University in Egypt attempt to make a case for the “therapeutic effects” of dates by surveying the literature for studies that investigate any of the natural components of dates. Like any fruit, dates harbour literally hundreds of compounds that include sugars, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, carotenoids, glucans, steroids and saponins. Study any specific component of dates, or some extract of the fruit in the lab or in an animal model, and some effect will be noted. You can then torture the data until it reveals some potentially therapeutic effect. There are hundreds and hundreds of compounds that have been isolated from botanicals that have shown antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects in the lab. Only in extremely rare instances have these made the jump to human therapeutics. For every taxol from the yew tree or vincristine from periwinkle, both effective cancer treatments, there are thousands of plant compounds that have ended up on pharmacology’s junk pile.

The fact that some date components or date extracts may neutralize free radicals in a test tube or interfere with the multiplication of cancer cells says nothing about how consuming dates may affect any disease. Neither does injecting purified beta glucan extracted from dates into mice that have had tumours transplanted into them and noting tumour regression tell anything about the value of eating dates.

So, while dates may not delay a date with the Grim Reaper, they do have something going for them. Taste! Especially the “Medjool” variety which thanks to their large size, soft texture and rich, sweet flavour are regarded as the “king of dates”. These dates are packaged as soon as they are harvested and unlike most others, are not dried. Don’t go overboard though. Dates have the highest sugar content of any fruit, with four dates containing about 60 grams, close to double that in a soft drink!

joe.schwarcz@mcgill.ca

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss).  

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