It seems like every day there’s a new sweetener vying for space on our pantry shelves and making the rounds online. Stevia! Monk fruit extract! Agave nectar! Many of the new sweeteners promise magical properties — they’re all-natural, calorie-free, sustainable, or check off some other essential health food box. Old-fashioned saccharin — or, perish the thought, sugar — don’t stand a chance against this new crop of sweetening hopefuls.
Many of these sweeteners have major drawbacks: Stevia is hard to cook with and can leave a bitter aftertaste. Monk fruit extract is expensive. And xylitol could poison your dog.
Enter date honey, made from pureed and filtered fruits of the date palm. It’s a dark, thick sweetener with the consistency of honey — hence the name. In theory, it’s a healthier choice than other sweeteners. And unlike honey, it’s vegan and paleo-friendly — no bees were harmed in the making of your jar! While it’s rare in the United States, date honey is a big deal in the Middle East, where it goes by the names silan, dvash, or rub.
I first tried date honey on a trip to Israel. Our tour bus broke down, and we stopped at a shopping mall. They had a smoothie stand, and I got a smoothie made with coconut milk, date honey, and bananas, and it was amazing. It was also one of the only unscripted moments on a trip that was otherwise a whirlwind tour of ancient ruins and cultural sites. I remember drinking my smoothie and thinking how nice it was to see how real people in the country lived and ate.
A biblical past
The origins of date honey go back to biblical times. Dates are one of the seven species of plants mentioned in the Old Testament, and date honey appears frequently in the Bible. Leviticus 2:11, for example, discusses when it can or cannot be used as an offering, and various other passages reference making and using the sweet syrup.
And the famous “land of milk and honey” that appears in Numbers and Exodus? Scholars believe that it doesn’t refer to bee’s honey, as most people assume. Nope, the “honey” in that classic phrase is none other than date honey. (As an aside, the “milk” probably isn’t cow’s milk, but rather goat’s milk or white wine.)
Date honey today
So date honey has ancient origins — possibly even enough to counter its present-day hype. But does it taste good?
To me, date honey tastes like a mashup between molasses and a fig newton. It has the sticky consistency and deep, slightly bitter sweetness of molasses, but also the distinctly fruity, floral taste of the aforementioned children’s cookie. It’s definitely not as sweet as bee honey — for many, especially younger kids, date honey will be an acquired taste. But like molasses, it also has a depth of flavor and ability to complement other foods that honey often lacks.
Date honey might not be available in most supermarkets, but it’s not hard to find. If you don’t mind paying a premium, Jeff Bezos has you covered. Several companies now sell date honey on Amazon, usually for around $7 to $10 per bottle. I like the D’vash brand.
If you don’t mind hunting around, you can probably find it in stores for a lot less. Middle Eastern markets often carry it, and you can get it in some well-stocked gourmet food shops.
Failing that, though, you can always make your own. The recipe couldn’t be simpler: Take a bunch of dates (Medjool work best) and cut them up. Boil them for about 30 minutes, and let them cool. Strain them through some cheesecloth, and the resulting liquid is date honey. Most people like to boil it down — just as you would when making maple syrup — until it’s their preferred level of thickness.
Once you’ve got a jar in your kitchen, it’s easy to incorporate it into cooking.
For starters, you can substitute it for sugar in your recipes and otherwise bake them as normal. Either use two-thirds of a cup of date honey for each cup of sugar replaced, or go 1:1 for a stronger date-y flavor.
Another great option is to duplicate my Israeli smoothie. Add date honey, a banana, milk, coconut milk, and ice to a blender and whiz until ready. You’ll be glad you did. And finally, date honey makes a great dip or sauce. I like it on Greek yogurt, with challah, or drizzled on a banana with some coconut milk.
So is date honey really healthier than other alternatives? I’m always dubious about health claims, especially when so many sites act like they’ve “rediscovered” an ancient material with supposedly magical properties. Google “date honey health” and you’ll surface some pretty iffy claims.
It turns out, though, that there’s some truth to the idea that date honey is healthier than other sweeteners. According to Bon Appetit, it has a glycemic index of 47, compared with around 70 for table sugar. A lower glycemic index suggests that a food will cause fewer spikes in blood sugar. And because date honey is made with whole fruit, there’s some evidence it contains magnesium, potassium, and other minerals.
So is it a tasty panacea you should put on everything? Not exactly. In the end, date honey is still sugar. It has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, but so does basically everything else. And while it has minerals, so do many far healthier items, like fruits and vegetables. It’s still fairly caloric, too, with 62 calories per tablespoon. So as with all sugars, use it in moderation.
While the health benefits of date honey seem modest at best, it has lots of other things going for it (beyond just being tasty). Because it’s derived from fruit, date honey is vegan. And because it’s been around since before agriculture, it’s paleo, too.
But even if you’re a regular old omnivore, you should still try date honey. It’s a corporation-defying natural sweetener you can make at home. It’s a cultural staple of a major part of the world. It’s a connection to an ancient, biblical time. Oh, and it goes great on vanilla ice cream.