Behold the Beet

Use this venerated vegetable to benefit your well-being
By Amy Vergin

For some kids, eating a beet could be considered a form of torture. Maybe if they knew just how good beets are for you—or that astronauts on Apollo 18 served them to their Russian comrades in a traditional borscht meal—they would be more willing to let beets into their lives.

Beets, also referred to as beetroot or table beet, are part of the chenopod family. Sound familiar? That’s because previous superfood articles—like those we wrote on quinoa and spinach—featured vegetables from the exact same family. It must be something in the genes that gives these plants health benefits not found in other food families. The chenopod family contains red and yellow betalain pigments and carotenoids, and there is a specific connection between these phytonutrients and nervous system health. All these things help make this family great for the human body.

Betalains are a rare source of phytonutrients found within beets. Betanin and vulgaxanthin are two forms of betalains—both provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. A few other foods containing betalains are rhubarb, chard, amaranth, and nopal (Mexican prickly pear) cactus.

To beet or not to beet

The history of the beet is a long one. Its ancestor, the wild beet, is thought to have originated in North Africa. Beets were chosen to be featured in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the ancient Romans used it as an aphrodisiac. Seems weird, but they were onto something: Beets contain a high amount of boron, and boron is directly related to the production of sex hormones, helping menopausal women regain their sex drive.

During the Middle Ages, beetroot was used for medicinal purposes. Any issue that involved digestion or illnesses of the blood would use this special ingredient. We don’t know whether people were actually cured of their illnesses, but they were certainly getting some important vitamins and minerals in their diet!

Napoleon also played a role in the popularity of beets. When access to sugar cane was restricted by British powers, Napoleon sent out a decree saying beets would become the main source of sugar.

Beets for your health

Like other superfoods, beets are packed with many needed vitamins and minerals. Beets are high in potassium; magnesium; fiber; phosphorus; iron; vitamins A, B, and C; beta-carotene; beta-cyanine; and folic acid. The high levels of vitamin B and iron help pregnant women form new growth cells during their pregnancy. All these nutrients work together to make the beet a great food to help prevent colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate, and testicular cancers.

With the help of pectin polysaccharides, beet fiber provides benefits to the digestive tract and cardiovascular system that other fiber does not. Health research has recently focused on this special fiber to see why it affects the body in such beneficial ways.

Beets are also helpful when detoxifying your body. In “phase 2 detoxification,” our cells hookup activated and unwanted toxic substances with smaller nutrient groups. This step helps neutralize the toxins and also makes them water soluble so they can be excreted through the urine.

Beet lovers might notice one small issue with eating a lot of beets. Beeturia is when your urine turns a reddish/pinkish color from the betalain pigments. This only happens when the body is having problems metabolizing iron. If your urine is turning colors after eating beets, consult your physician!

Give it up for beet juice

A more recent finding is the relationship between beet juice and athleticism. Beet juice is naturally high in nitrates which the body uses to make nitrite and nitric oxide. These two chemicals expand blood vessels and protect them from injury, increasing muscle power and endurance.

One recent study showed drinking beet juice caused the need for oxygen to drop by 19 percent, while the time of exercise endurance increased by 17 percent. And another study, published in the 2011 Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise journal, showed that cyclists could cut 11 seconds off of their four kilometer times, and 45 seconds off of their 16.1 kilometer times, just by drinking beet juice. More research needs to be completed, but beet juice could be the next big thing for athletes.

Beautifully red, beautifully sweet

The look of beets is a bit confusing. The beet has green leaves connected to a round/oblong part, which is the beet. Beets commonly have a reddish-purple hue, but they actually come in a variety of colors, anywhere from golden yellows to white—sometimes they will have rainbow-colored roots. The betalain mentioned earlier is what gives beets their reddish pigment, which is quite rare. Other red foods, like red cabbage, typically get their color from anthocyanin.

Because of the beet’s high sugar content, they are actually quite sweet. (Beet sugar accounts for 54 percent of domestic sugar production.) Raw beetroots have a crunchy texture, but once they have been cooked, they are softer and buttery. The leaves, which are also edible, are bitter and similar to chard.

Preparing your beets

Beets are in season June through October. When choosing your beet, look for those that are small or medium sized with firm roots, smooth skin, and deep color. The smaller and younger the beet, the less chance you will need to peel them after cooking.

Because of the sensitivity of the betalain chemical, studies suggest that beets should be steamed for 15 minutes or less and roasted for under an hour. Beets are sensitive and can easily bleed from the smallest bruise or puncture, so treat them as delicate vegetables even though they look tough.

Refrain from washing beets before storing. Beets should be kept in a plastic bag with most of the air out because they are very sensitive to oxidation. They will stay fresh in the refrigerator up to three weeks. If you want to freeze them, make sure to cook them first. Raw beets will become soft and less desirable after thawing.

In centuries past, people ate beet greens instead of the root, but now it is well known that both are edible and great for a variety of recipes. The greens work best when prepared the same way as spinach or Swiss chard. Eastern Europeans use beets as the main ingredient in borscht, but you can also eat beets raw, cooked, or pickled. Beets have even been used in making wine, and as a dietary aid for horses training for competition.

Try grating your beets and adding them to soups or salads. Or you could boil, roast, grill, pickle, or marinate them with fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and herbs.

While beets may not be your typical vegetable on the dinner table, start finding ways to get your family eating it. The pairing of the high sugar and energy content with low calories will help it become a new household favorite.