Food security is a main concern in the UAE. But the country has a lot of resources that could be developed to help meet the growing demand. One of them is dates – with more than 40 million date palms across the Emirates, the fruit is overly produced.
According to Dr Afaf Kamal-Eldin, Professor in the Department of Food Science at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), there are hundreds of varieties of date fruits produced in the UAE and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but their commercialization is limited and only a few varieties are known internationally. Their benefits are vital - date fruits are rich in antioxidants and other bioactive phytochemicals, that are beneficial for health.
Researchers at the university are now focusing on the identification and classification of Emirati date varieties, through their characteristic traits, and the understanding of the chemistry and biochemistry behind varietal differences. They also aim to identify the major antioxidant compounds and their role in determining fruit color, taste and nutritional value. The hardness and texture of date fruits are important factors to distinguish their possible use in different food products.
The research explores the relationship between the fruit texture and their chemical composition, with respect to their content of moisture, sugars and dietary fibre. “Our research is experimental and lab-based,” Dr Kamal-Eldin said. “Because food science is a very multidisciplinary area, we use methods from questionnaires about the sensory quality of food, how much people like it and why, to experiments where we analyze components of the food, the chemistry and health studies in rats or humans, it’s a wide range.”
However, due to a surplus of date production in Arab countries as well as some Asian nations, such as Pakistan, a lot of wastage takes place. “We have to develop some processes for them, which is a challenge due to the excessive sweet nature of the date,” she added. “We need to understand the characteristics of date varieties and classify them into different groups – those for fresh eating, and those that are dry and have a better preservative quality, which can be used to make date powder or be incorporated into biscuits for example.”
The possibilities are endless, with millions of tonnes of dates to work with every year globally. “Food and health are areas in the UAE where researchers are exploring how to develop new foods and food ingredients from Emirati raw materials with a focus on date fruits and camel milk, which are abundantly produced in this part of the world,” Dr Kamal-Eldin said. “Local people appreciate these foods as healthy alternatives in their diet.”
Another area of research currently undertaken is camel milk, which has been recognized as having several therapeutic effects, including anti-diabetic, anti-allergic, and anti-autistic. “The main aim is to increase the camel population as a food security resource,” she explained. “The camel population is quite low because of the lack of industrial processing globally.”
In the UAE, Al Ain Dairy and Camelicious have started the production of camel milk and laban, which is fermented camel milk, as well as milk powder. They are also increasing their own herds in farms. However, in other communities, camels are mainly used for personal purposes.
Unlike dates, camel milk is restricted in its amount so most of the population resorts to drinking cow’s milk. But research has shown that camel milk is healthier than cow’s milk – it is fundamentally different in the amount and type of proteins it contains.
In addition, it contains less lactose, more vitamin C, and possibly a healthier fat compared to cow’s milk. The anti-allergic effect of camel milk is related to its lack of a beta-lactoglobulin, a dominant whey protein in cow’s milk, as well as a low level and different structure of another protein beta-casein.
Two proteins present in relatively higher levels in camel milk compared to cow’s milk, alpha-lactalbumin and lactoferrin, are also possibly responsible for the health benefits of camel milk.
However, the differences between camel and cow’s milk are challenging from a processing point of view. It is not possible to produce hard cheeses and a set-type yoghurt from camel milk, primarily due to the lack of beta-lactoglobulin.
“It’s a different composition from cow’s milk so some products, like cheese and yoghurt, are not feasible,” Dr Kamal-Eldin said. “We’re trying to work on yoghurt by adding some additives to the milk to make some fat yoghurt, but it’s not perfect yet and it’s expensive. We first need to understand the chemistry of the milk and the proteins in it.”
Although it is expected that camel milk production will increase by six to seven per cent between 2018 and 2022, Dr Kamal-Eldin estimates it will take some years before attaining such products. “Gradually, it will be developed but there are some challenges like long-life milk, which also doesn’t work with camel milk,” she said. “They’re not short-term projects but they are valuable because adding value to dates and selling them will provide some return, and camels themselves can be a food security resource all over the MENA region.”
MSc and PhD students at the Department of Food Science are currently investigating the chemical components of date fruits and camel milk, and their relation with the sensory quality, the processing challenges, and the nutritional value of these foods, in collaboration with other scientists in the UAE and abroad.
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