The beet (Beta vulgaris) or beetroot belongs to the same family as chard and spinach (Chenopo diaceae).However, unlike these greens, both the root and the leaves of beets are eaten. Beet leaves have a lively, bitter taste similar to that of chard. Attached to the beet’s green leaves is a round or oblong root.
Although typically a reddish purple hue, beets also come in varieties that feature white or golden roots. Because of their high sugar content, beets are delicious when eaten raw but are more typically cooked or pickled. Beets are the main ingredient in borscht, a traditional eastern European soup.
History of Beetroot
The wild beet originated in North Africa and grew along Asian and European seashores. Like many modern vegetables, beets were ﬁrst cultivated by the ancient Romans. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe.
The commercial value of beets grew in the nineteenth century, when it was discovered that they could be converted into sugar. When access to sugarcane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar. Today the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, the Russian Federation, France, Poland, and Germany.
Nutritional Highlights of Beetroot
Beet greens are higher in nutritional value than beetroots, as they are richer in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. Beetroots are an excellent source of folic acid and a very good source of ﬁber, manganese, and potassium. Beet greens and roots are a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin B 6. A 100 gram serving of beet greens contains 27 calories and 3 grams of ﬁber, while the same serving of cooked beetroot provides 44 calories with 10 grams of carbohydrate, primarily as 8 grams of sugars.
Beetroot Health Benefits
Beetroots have long been used for medicinal purposes, primarily for disorders of the liver, given their stimulating effects on the liver’s detoxiﬁcation processes. Beets have also gained recognition for their reported anticancer properties. The pigment that gives beets their rich, purple-crimson color, betacyanin, is a powerful cancer—ﬁghting agent. Beet ﬁber has been shown to have a favorable effect on bowel function and cholesterol levels, too.
The combination of their betacyanin and ﬁber content is probably responsible for the protective role of beets against colon cancer. In animal studies, beet ﬁber has been shown to increase the level of the antioxidant enzymes, speciﬁcally glutathione peroxidase and glutathione transferase, as well as increase the number of special white blood cells responsible for detecting and eliminating abnormal cells.
In a study of patients with stomach cancer, beet juice was found to be a potent inhibitor of the formation of nitrosamines (cancer-causing compounds derived primarily from the ingestion of nitrates from smoked or cured meats) as well as the cell mutations caused by these compounds.
How to Select and Store Beetroot
Good-quality beets should have their greens intact. The greens should be fresh-looking, with no signs of spoilage. Slightly ﬂabby greens can be restored to freshness if stored in the refrigerator in water; if it is too late, you can simply cut off the greens. The beetroot should be ﬁrm, smooth, and a vibrant red-purple, not soft, wrinkled, and dull-colored. Fresh beets with the greens attached can be stored for three to ﬁve days in the refrigerator, but beets with the greens removed can be stored in the refrigerator for two to four weeks.
If you will be storing beets for longer than a couple of days, cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, so they do not pull moisture away from the root. Leave about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from “bleeding.” Store the unwashed greens in a separate perforated plastic bag, where they will keep fresh for about four days.
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Raw beets do not freeze well since they tend to become soft upon thawing. Freezing cooked beets is ﬁne; they’ll retain their ﬂavor and texture.
Tips for Preparing Beetroot
Wash beets gently under cool running water, taking care not to tear the skin—this tough outer layer helps keep most of the beets’ pigments inside the vegetable. If the beets are not organically grown, soak them in cold water with a mild solution of additive-free soap or use a produce wash and rinse.
Beet greens are typically prepared by steaming. Be sure to cook them lightly to retain their anticancer effects. When boiling beetroots, leave the beets with their root ends and one inch of stem attached; and don’t peel them until after cooking since beet juice can stain your skin. If your hands become stained during the cleaning and cooking process, rubbing some lemon juice on them will remove the stain.
The color of beets can be altered during cooking if desired. Adding an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or vinegar, will brighten the color, while an alkaline substance, such as bicarbonate of soda, will often cause them to turn a deeper purple. Salt will blunt beets’ color, so add it only at the end of cooking, if needed.
Quick Serving Ideas for Beetroot
• Raw beetroot can be grated for use in salads and as a garnish for soups. Not only does it add excellent nutrition, it also adds ﬂavor and color.
• Beet greens can also be used in salads in place of lettuce.
• Beetroots can be roasted with other vegetables in the oven or under the grill.
• Lightly saute beet greens with other greens, such as chard and mustard greens.
• Swirl pureed cooked beetroot and stewed apples together with cinnamon and nutmeg to make a colorful and delicious snack or dessert.
• Beet juice is a delicious way to increase your nutrient intake. However, start with a small amount of juice, such as 1/2 to 1 ﬂuid ounce/ 15 to 30 milliliters, mixed with other juices, such as carrot and apple. Larger amounts of beet juice may cause an upset stomach.
Some people eating beets may experience beeturia, a red or pink color in the urine or stool; it is a totally harmless condition. Beet greens and, to a lesser extent, the roots contain high levels of oxalate. Individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid overconsuming beetroot and beet greens.