Experts say dates would need a huge branding makeover to boost their appeal to American and European markets.
Battle to sell Middle East dates to western market
Dates would need a huge branding makeover to boost their appeal to American and European markets, industry experts said.
Misinformation about dates was pervasive in the West, said Charlene Rainey, of the Date Research Institute in Washington DC.
In the US, dates are considered processed and dried rather than fresh, which affects their nutritional labelling regulations. Denmark classifies dates as a candy.
"Dates aren't dried fruit at all, they are actually the lowest moisture fresh fruit," she said. Dates have a moisture content of 30 per cent.
Ms Rainey was speaking as part of a date market workshop at Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire (Sial) Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, which runs until tomorrow.
The battle has only begun. The institute has partnered with the Whole Fruit Coalition to petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change how fresh fruit is regulated in the US.
"We'll hold workshops defining whole fruits, and make sure that dates fall within the category," she said. The institute is also holding workshops with the US Agriculture Department to change where dates are presented in the food pyramid, an important dietary guide.
Sugar has become a hot topic in the fight against obesity. The American Heart Association recently released a report that advised consumers to avoid refined and brown sugars, as well as dried fruit.
The body processes the sugar in dates along with fibre, which slows the sugar from going into the bloodstream. Dates are also rich in heart healthy antioxidants. These factors, Ms Rainey said, meant dates were a healthy way for people to digest sugars.
"Everything ten years ago was about fat and heart disease, the new research is all about sugars," Ms Rainey said. Now was the time for date marketers to approach the US and western markets, she said, before they became misbranded.
The Date Research Institute has begun work on changing public opinion. Ms Rainey has spoken at dietician conventions. Articles about the benefits of dates have appeared in health industry newsletters, and media outlets such as the Food Network are considering showcasing dates as an alternative ingredient to sugar. A targeted approach has worked for other fruits. Research and marketing carried out on the benefits of pomegranates saw consumption rates rise 10 times and "now there's worldwide consumption", Ms Rainey said.
The key, she said, was accessing American markets. If dates were popularised in the US, European markets would follow suit.
Western markets did not carry Middle Eastern dates, said Hadi Halabi, a regional marketing consultant for the Societa Interbancaria per I'Automazione.
Unfocused marketing strategies and bureaucratic red tape have stifled manufacturers' attempts to export beyond the region. "All of the attempts so far have lacked a clear understanding of the market psychology in the US, said Mr Halabi.
Dr Samir al Shakir, a consultant for Palm and Dates Global Technology, assisted a company in setting up date exports to the US but was frustrated with the red tape.
The Date Palm Institute is looking to partner with regional date producers to help firms. The institute also wants to attract more funding for research.
Improvements needed to happen at home as well, said Dr al Shakir.
"We have enough of a quantity to export, but we need to improve quality," he said, adding that the Emirates only produces 10 per cent of dates in the region.