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The European market potential for dates

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In the long term, the European market for dates is expected to show stable growth. This growth is likely to be driven by changes in the consumption patterns of European consumers. This includes the rising interest in healthy snacking and sugar replacement. Another driving force would be consumption by a large number of immigrants who are arriving in Europe. Many of them regularly consume dates. France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands offer the most opportunities for developing country suppliers.

1. Product description

Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera). Depending on the fruit’s maturity, dates are referred to as fresh or dried. Fresh dates (usually with a moisture content of >50%) are rarely sold on the European market. The season for fresh dates is very short in producing countries, and only a few varieties are appropriate for eating at this stage. Therefore, this study will only discuss the European market for dried dates (sometimes called ‘table dates’).

When left on the tree, dates will ripen, change colour, soften and reduce in size, weight and moisture content, but increase in sugar content. When picked early to avoid damage by rain, insects or other factors, dates may need to be additionally ripened after harvest. After harvesting and cleaning, dates are protected from insects through fumigation, commonly rehydrated for better softness, sterilised by being exposed to higher temperatures, sorted into grades by quality and size and stored in a cool atmosphere.

Dates can be produced without any treatment after harvesting, those dates are called natural dates. Dates can also undergo treatment after harvesting, including rehydration and coating with glucose syrup or sorbitol. Those dates are called conditioned dates.

Dates can be produced with a lower (<30%) moisture content or a higher (<60%) moisture content. Dates with a higher moisture content need to be stored at a temperature between 0 and 4°C. Even when dry, dates are often stored in frozen form to prolong shelf life. Generally, a frozen cold chain is then maintained during transport and further storage. For the retail shelves, processed dates will be offered at ambient or fridge temperature.

Dates are normally used as a final product (a fruit snack) for consumers, but they are also used as an ingredient in home cooking and in bakery products, confectionery and other food manufacturing industries. If dates are consumed as a snack, they are generally used whole, either with pits (stones) inside or pitted (destoned). They can also be chopped and used as an ingredient in, for example, mueslis or dried fruit mixtures. In addition, dates can be processed further into products, such as date paste, date juice (syrup) and liquid date sugar. Even the pits can be used to produce oil and coffee substitutes.

Most of the world’s date production is concentrated in the subtropical climate of North Africa and the Middle East. The harvesting season extends from July to late November, depending on the variety. However, the main harvest starts in September. World date production is increasing at a steady rate and reached 1 million tonnes in 2020. Saudi Arabia is the leading producer of dates, with a 21% share of the world’s production. It is followed by Iran (16%), the United Arab Emirates (13%), Tunisia (11%), Egypt (10%) and Algeria (9%).

More than 3000 date cultivars are grown worldwide. They are generally classified into two categories: cane sugar varieties and invert sugar varieties. In most varieties, the sugar content is almost entirely of the inverted form (glucose or fructose), but a few varieties contain cane sugar (sucrose). The two cultivars are distinguished by their popularity on the world market: Medjool (invert sugar variety) and Deglet Nour (cane sugar variety). Medjool dates are particularly popular, representing around 25% of the total world exports.

Figure 1: Medjool dates

Medjool dates

Source: photo by Amy Bradstreet, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Figure 2: Deglet Noor dates

Deglet Noor dates

Source: photo by م ض, (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

This study covers general information regarding the date market in Europe, which is of interest to producers in developing countries. For statistical analysis, the following combined nomenclature code is used:

Combined Nomenclature Number

Product

08041000

fresh or dried dates

Production statistics mentioned in the study cover dates statistics of dried dates that have been packaged and presented for sale as such (approximately 15% of global raw date production).

2. What makes Europe an interesting market for dates?

Although Europe is not the largest import market for dates, Europe is the fastest-growing importing region in the world. Europe increased its import share from 22% in 2016 to more than 32% in 2020. Total European date imports reached 158 thousand tonnes in 2020; good for a value of €395 million. After import, more than 34 thousand tonnes are traded inside Europe.

More than 81% of imported dates in Europe come from developing countries. Internal European trade consists of simple re-exporting of imported dates, but a significant part consists of added-value trade, including operations such as retail packing. European imports from developing countries increased over the last 5 years, from 89 thousand tonnes in 2016 to 127 thousand tonnes in 2020. The current increase and the expected increase of imported quantities offer good opportunities for developing country suppliers.

Table dates are not produced in Europe, so the demand fully depends on import. Some small quantities are produced in Spain, but they are all sold as fresh in local markets. In the next five years, the European market for dates is likely to increase with an annual growth rate of 7-10%. The high import growth rate is forecasted because of the higher demand for natural sweeteners which can be alternatives for sugar. Together with the import of table dates, import of date syrup and date paste is likely to increase too.

The European market for dates is moderately concentrated. Three countries have a share of more than 50% of total imports. France was the leading importer in Europe (with a 27% import share) in 2020, followed by Germany (15%), the United Kingdom (13%), the Netherlands (9%) and Italy (6%). According to the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council, the largest date-consuming country in Europe is France, with 38.7 thousand tonnes in 2020 (including industrial and foodservice consumption).

One of the important reasons for France’s large consumption is its large share of diaspora from North African date producing countries. Per capita consumption in Europe is largest in the Netherlands, with an average consumption of 0.8 kg/year per person. Consumption of dates in Europe as a snack has a strong seasonal character. There are usually two peaks in consumption. One is related to the Muslim population in Europe who consume most dates during the month of Ramadan. Another peak is during winter holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Christmas.

The coronavirus outbreak in 2020 and 2021 affected the European food market, including dates. This mainly influenced the market structure. Sales through the food service segment decreased due to closure of restaurants and hotels. On the other hand, retail sales and home delivery sales increased. Import volumes and regular import procedures were not influenced by the pandemic, and Europe continued to increasingly import dates and date products. However, the market structure is returning to the pre-pandemic state as the foodservice sector is showing recovery in 2021.

3. Which European countries offer most opportunities for dates?

The main importers of dates in Europe are also the leading consumers: France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Figure 5 represents apparent consumption. These data also include industrial consumption. As produced quantities vary between the years, there may be a wrong perception of constantly fluctuating demand. In reality, demand is stable and increasing, which is clearly evident from the constantly increasing retail sales of dates.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom are the largest European markets for dates, representing more than 50% of the European market. Over the last five years, a high import growth rate was noted in the Netherlands, Spain and Italy too. Therefore, all six countries offer a lot of opportunities for emerging suppliers of dates to Europe. Other countries with a high increase in imports include Belgium (a 12% annual growth rate since 2016), Poland (11%), and Austria (12%).

France: the leading European market for dates

France is the largest importer of dates in Europe, representing around 25% of the European market. French date imports increased over the last 5 years, reaching more than 50 thousand tonnes and a value of €102 million in 2020. Of this quantity, around 92% accounted for imports from developing countries, with Israel as the only significant supplier from the rest of the world (2.3 thousand tonnes), followed by the United States with around 110 tonnes. In 2020, France exported 18 thousand tonnes of dates, with Germany being the main market.

In 2020, France imported 51% of its dates from Algeria, followed by Tunisia (36%) and Israel (5%). France is the only European country for which Algeria is the leading date supplier. This is explained by the well-established trade relationship and historical background between the two countries and their shared language (French). Apart from the three leading suppliers, no other country has a market share of more than 2% in France. Emerging suppliers with notable increases in exports to France are Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Over the last 5 years, Jordan increased its export to France sixfold, from 156 tonnes in 2016 to 943 tonnes in 2020.

Most dates in France (perhaps more than 70%) are sold through retail channels. The remaining 30% are sold to the industry and food service. The date variety that is imported and consumed most in France is Deglet Nour, but the number of varieties is increasing. Dates are consumed throughout the year, but the highest consumption is found during winter months, especially at the end of the year. Also, consumption is higher among the Muslim population during Ramadan.

Large quantities of dates are also sold under private labels (brands of the retail chains) such as Carrefour (Carrefour, Carrefour Bio and Petit Prix labels), Leclerc (Couleurs Vives label), Super U (U label), Intermarché (Paquito label) and Auchan (Auchan, Mmm and Bio). Independent brands include La Favorite and Sun (by Color Foods), Holy Fruits (by Mondial Fruits Secs), Brousse (by Brousse Vergez), Daco Bello (by Daco France) and Maître Prunille. Brands of producers are also present on the market. In some shops, dates are sold unbranded by weight.

Ethical sourcing and sourcing of organic dates is also developing in France. Examples of companies and date importers sourcing ethically include Agro Sourcing and Direct Producteurs Fruits Secs.

French brands usually promote a date cultivar (most commonly Deglet Nour or Medjool) and sometimes the origin (most often Algeria or Tunisia). Promoting the origin of the dates means that Tunisia and Algeria are recognised as quality suppliers to France. The most frequent size of retail packs is 500 g, but many other sizes are available. All supermarket brands (private labels) in France have started to use Nutri-score to label dates. Dates are usually labelled ‘B’ or sometimes ‘A’, depending on sugar content.

Figure 6: Brousse branched dates (brand by Brousse Vergez)

Brousse branched dates

Source: Carrefour

Figure 7: Dates paste (La Favorite brand)

Dates paste

Source: Amazon France

Germany: the European importer with a large organic market

German imports of dates increased over the last five years with an average annual growth rate of 9%. In 2020, German date imports reached almost 30 thousand tonnes and a value of €73 million. Germany also exported 10 thousand tonnes, leaving around 20 thousand tonnes for domestic consumption. German per capita consumption of dates is 2.4 kg/year.

In 2020, Germany imported 43% of its dates from Tunisia, followed by Algeria (13%) and Pakistan (11%). Other suppliers with increasing exports to Germany are Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The highest increase in imports is noted for the United Arab Emirates. German imports of dates from the United Arab Emirates increased from 350 tonnes in 2016 to 1.3 thousand tonnes in 2020. Other emerging suppliers include Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and South Africa.

Germany is a particularly attractive market for organic dates, as the country is the largest European market for organic food. Most organic dates sold in Germany are imported from Tunisia. The use of dates as an ingredient is also increasing in the organic segment. Some organic products containing dates in Germany include fruit bars (for example, Lubs, Hej, Alnatura and Lebepur), baby purees (for example, Swiss brand Holle), fruit snacks (for example, DM and bio zentrale) and breakfast porridge mixtures (for example, Stark, Hammermühle and Austrian Verival).

Sustainable sourcing has become very important to German date importers. For example, the German organic food company Rapunzel has developed its own fair-trade programme and certification called “hand in hand”. This certification guarantees fair prices, good working conditions, social security, and transparency for suppliers. Centre de conditionnement de fruits (CCF), a dates processor from Tunisia, has benefited from this programme and has become a direct supplier to Rapunzel. Most of the staff of CCF are permanently hired women and all employees have social security benefits. The company has its own medical room where all employees get regular, free medical check-ups.

Significant quantities of dates in Germany are sold under private labels, including labels like Alesto (by discounter chain Lidl), Trader Joe’s (by Aldi Süd and Aldi Nord), ja! (by REWE) and Edeka and Ediba Bio (by Edeka). Examples of independent brands are Seeberger, Farmer’s Snack and Kluth. A large share of organic dates is sold under private label brands of specialised organic retailers, such as Bio Markt, DM and Alnatura. There are also independent organic brands, such as Rapunzel, Clasen Bio and Morgenland.

Figure 8: Example of a date brand in Germany (Seeberger)

Example of a date brand in Germany (Seeberger)

Source: Seeberger

Figure 9: Example of a date syrup in Germany (Alnatura)

Dattel sirup klein

Source: Alnatura

The United Kingdom: opportunities for emerging suppliers

In 2020, the United Kingdom imported 25 thousand tonnes of dates, with a value of €68 million. Most imported dates are consumed within the country. There is a relatively small percentage of re-export. Consumption of dates in the United Kingdom is estimated to have been around 24 thousand tonnes in 2019. This was an increase of 5 thousand tonnes compared to 2018. Per capita consumption in 2019 was 0.38 kg/year.

The import market structure in the United Kingdom is quite specific and different from other leading European markets. In 2020, the United Kingdom imported dates from Pakistan (a 30% share), Israel (13%), Saudi Arabia (9%), and Tunisia (9%). The second-largest European supplier, Algeria, has a market share of only 0.7%. The United Kingdom is the only European country for which Pakistan is the leading date supplier. This is explained by the large Pakistani-born population in the United Kingdom. They established trade relationships with Pakistan.

Another characteristic of date imports in the United Kingdom is the presence of a large number of importers which are importing smaller quantities. In 2020, more than 180 different companies were importing dates in the United Kingdom. Many suppliers specialise in the ethnic segment and sell dates to specialised ethnic shops. Examples of ethnic suppliers and importers include Fudco, Afak Trading, Al Harmain Dates, Damasgate, Golden Saffron, Organic UK, Sahara UK Foods and WG Buchanan.

The large market shares are captured by the private labels of retail chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Morrisons. A leading independent brand is Whitworths. The presence of other brands (aside from private labels) is relatively small and includes brands such as Crazy Jack, Wholefoods and Tree of Life. Some exporters are successfully selling their own brands, such as Hadiklaim from Israel (Jordan river brand) and Siafa International from Saudi Arabia (Madina brand). The French cooperative Maître Prunille also sells the Eat Me brand in the UK.

In the United Kingdom, dates are increasingly used as an ingredient in fruit snacks without added sugar. In those products, dates or date paste is used to provide sweetness. Many fruit bar snacks with dates were launched in the last several years. Some examples include Get Buzzing, Nakd, Trek, Good (brand by Western Commodities) and Deliciously Ella.

The market in the United Kingdom offers specific opportunities for suppliers of Fairtrade-certified dates, as the country is home to one of the largest Fairtrade products markets in Europe. Currently, there are around 4,500 Fairtrade-certified products on sale in the United Kingdom.

Spain: significant increase of import

Spanish date imports show a significant increase, with an annual growth rate of 10%. Spain’s date imports increased from 8 thousand tonnes in 2016 to 12 thousand tonnes in 2020, good for €33.8 million. Spanish date consumption is estimated to have been around 19 thousand tonnes in 2019. Per capita consumption is around 0.26 kg/year.

In 2020, Spain imported 39% of its dates from Tunisia, followed by Algeria (29%) and Israel (17%). Large quantities (1.3 thousand tonnes) were imported from France through re-export. Some of those re-exported quantities were packed by France-based retailers and sold in Spain. Algeria was gaining market share at the fastest rate in Spain, increasing its supply from 870 tonnes in 2016 to 3.5 thousand tonnes in 2020.

Dates are mostly sold by private labels of Spanish retail chains such as Mercadona (Hacendado label), Carrefour, Lidl (Alesto label), Alcampo (Auchan label), Eroski, Dia and Aldi. Examples of independent brands are El Monaguillo (by Bernabe Biosca Alimentacion, produced in Tunisia), Casa Pons (by Importaco, sold in Mercadona), Frumesa, Borges, Fernández and Campomar (organic). Also, some quantities are sold unbranded by weight.

Italy: supply dominated by Tunisia

In 2020, Italy imported 12 thousand tonnes of dates with a value of €31 million. Around 1.6 thousand tonnes were re-exported, leaving around 10 thousand tonnes for domestic consumption. According to INC, per capita consumption of dates in Italy is estimated at 0.21 kg/year. Imports of dates to Italy show a strong seasonal pattern. Italy imports more than 50% of its dates in the last quarter of the year, reaching a peak in November. This is explained by the increased use of dates during the winter holidays in Italy. More dried fruits, including dates, are generally eaten during winter holidays such as New Year’s Eve and Christmas.

In 2020, Italy imported 75% of its dates from Tunisia, followed by Israel (9%) and Algeria (5%). Similarly to Spain, Italy imports some quantities via re-export from France, because of the presence of France-based retailers. French retailers pack dried fruits in France, including dates, and then export the products to Italy. Palestine is present on the Italian market with a 2% share of direct exports. Other emerging suppliers include Iran, Egypt and Jordan.

Sales are dominated by private supermarket labels, such as Coop, Conad and Carrefour. Independent brands include Fatina (by Murano), Ventura, Noberasco and Life. Sales of organic dates in Italy are increasing. The variety that is sold the most is Deglet Nour, with Tunisia as the main origin. Several retail brands present the name of the date cultivar on the retail label (Medjool or Deglet Nour). A specific characteristic of the Italian retail segment is the small packaging of 60 g, which is sold in shops for a value of €1 (€0.99).

The Netherlands: re-exporter of dates

Date imports in the Netherlands have been increasing at an average annual rate of 17% since 2016. Imports reached 18 thousand tonnes and a value of €57 million in 2020. Although the Netherlands imports more dates than Italy and Spain, consumption is relatively small, as the majority of dates are re-exported. In 2020, the Netherlands re-exported more than 10 thousand tonnes of dates, leaving around 8 thousand tonnes for domestic consumption.

The Netherlands is the only European country for which Israel is the leading supplier. In 2020, the Netherlands imported 25% of its dates from Israel, followed by Tunisia (18%), France (11%) and Iran (9%). Tunisia is gaining market share in the Netherlands at the fastest rate, from 1.2 thousand tonnes in 2016 to 3 thousand tonnes in 2020. The leading market for dates re-exported from the Netherlands is Germany, followed by France.

The majority of dates in the Netherlands are sold under private labels. The leading retail chains selling dates under their own label in the Netherlands include Albert Heijn (AH label), Aldi (Trader Joe’s label), Jumbo (Jumbo label) and Lidl (Alesto label). Large Medjool dates are sometimes packed in more luxurious packaging. Several brands are sold under the labels of producers, especially in ethnic shops. One of the leading organic brands for dates is Smaakt Bio, but organic dates are also packed and sold under private labels.

Tips:

The increasing demand for healthy snacking and sugar replacement alternatives, combined with product innovation, is the driving force behind the growing consumer interest in dates in Europe. Also, sustainable and ethical production is becoming an important aspect for European traders and consumers.

Sugar replacement

Sugar consumption is decreasing in Europe. Dates are one of the sweetest fruits, containing only naturally occurring sugars. As such, dates and date products are increasingly used as a sugar replacement. Innovative fruit snacks and other products containing dates very often use clean and clear label claims such as: refined sugar free, no added sugar, reduced sugar and low sugar. Dates also add flavour and colour, replacing the need for artificial additives, thus creating a clear ingredient label.

Dates are used in home cooking, to give natural sweetness to products such as smoothies, shakes, healthy snacks and other dishes. Industrial users increasingly use date products as a sugar replacement, including date paste or date syrup (concentrated date juice). Some companies use the popularity of vegan food as an opportunity to promote dates as a vegan sugar replacement. As honey is produced by bees, it is not vegan.

Producers and exporters of dates are also spreading their offer by introducing new products, aside from date syrup and date paste. A good example of a producing company that offers several innovative products is the Tunisian company Boudjebel. It produces date crystal sugar, date powder, date paste, date syrup, date kernel oil, and date bread.

Healthy snacking for athletes

A major trend that is in line with increased consumption of dried fruit, including dates, is healthy snacking. Consumers are searching for healthier alternatives to snack between meals, or for snacks that can replace meals. Younger consumers who are taking more care of their health and wellness no longer favour sweets such as candies or chocolate snacks but switch to protein bars and other low-sugar alternatives. As a result, dried fruit (together with nuts) is becoming increasingly popular as snack.

However, dates are not considered light snacks, because they are rich in carbohydrates. Depending on the variety, they contain between 45% and 80% sugar. Sugar from dates has a low glycaemic index, which means it will be digested slowly, keeping energy levels even throughout the day. Slow release of energy ensures athletes have enough strength to perform well during their activity. They are also used as snacks after intensive training sessions to support glycogen replacement in muscles.

Innovative products based on dates

Innovative fruit snacks and other products increasingly use dates as an ingredient. During ANUGA (a leading food exhibition) 2019 and 2021, a lot of new products with dates as an ingredient (see table below) were presented.

Table 1: Innovative products presented at Anuga 2019 and 2021

Category

Description/Product examples

Fruit snacks with dates

The popularity of fruit bars in Europe has increased over the last few years. The natural sweetener function of dried fruit allows sweet products to be made without added sugar. Dates and date paste are often used in fruit bars because of their sweetness.

Some examples are Raw-Bite (Denmark), Nakd (the United Kingdom), Veganz (Germany), Hemp and Ginger Bites (Slovenia) and Pharmind (Czech Republic).

Breakfast cereals with dates

Many breakfast cereals use added sugar to give sweetness to muesli, granola and other products. As consumers are searching for no-added-sugar alternatives, some breakfast cereal producers have started to use dates in product compositions.

Examples include Dorset Cereals (the United Kingdom), Verival (Austria), Risenta (Sweden), Charles Vignon (France) and LeSillon (France).

Traditional sweet snacks with dates as sweeteners

Examples of products that use dates as a sweetener are sweet spreads, chocolate products, cookies, and crisp products. These are used as an alternative to traditional, sugar-rich jams and marmalades.

An example of an innovative company in this field is the company Soua Soua (France), which produces spreads from Algerian dates. Aside from spreads, Soua Soua produces other innovative products, such as fermented milk with dates. Another example is the Polish company Me Gusto which produces organic chocolates and wafers sweetened with dates.

Sustainability and ethical production

Consumers and retailers are increasingly interested in sustainably produced fruit products, including dates. Read more about these trends in the CBI processed fruit and vegetables trends study.

Some companies that focus on ethical production source their products from a specific country and support producers through specific projects. A couple of ethical sourcing projects have been launched in Palestine. Examples include the Unicop project from Florence, Italy and Zaytoun in the United Kingdom. Both projects support the selling of Palestinian Medjool dates. Another example is the Date project (by SKT Welfare from the United Kingdom). This project collects funds to support the welfare of families in Syria and Palestine. For each box of dates sold, funds are given to Syria and Palestine as humanitarian aid.

Tips:

This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by Autentika Global.

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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