The chief food value of the date lies in its very high sugar content, which can be 70 per cent by weight in a dried date, although the semi-dried dates sold in western countries only contain about 50 per cent. The fruit contains a fair amount of protein, plus vitamins A and some of the B group. It is not a perfectly balanced staple food; but desert Arabs nonetheless exist in good health for long periods on almost nothing but dried dates and milk, which makes up most of the deficiencies.
Three main types of date are grown. Soft dates have a high moisture content, relatively little sugar in the fresh fruit stage, and a mild flavour. They are grown in the Middle East mainly for eating fresh, though they are also matured, dried, and compressed into blocks. Because of the naturally mild flavour and the concentration of sugar caused by the drying, these compressed dates are very sweet. Soft dates are not often seen in the West, although there is an international export trade within the Middle East. There is also a sporadic trade reaching further afield, as for example, during the fasting month of ramadan in Indonesia where dates are suddenly to be seen on every street corner, being considered a suitable way to ‘break’ the fast, whereas at other times they are unobtainable.