The beet is perhaps best known for its numerous cultivated varieties. Most of us are familiar with the purple root vegetable known as the beetroot or garden beet. Other varieties include the leaf vegetables, chard and spinach beet, as well as the sugar beet used in the production of table sugar.
Beets have large, leafy stems that resemble a heart in shape. Attached to the beet’s leaves is a round or oblong root. Usually reddish purple, the beetroot can also be white, golden yellow or even rainbow in color.
Beets have a crunchy texture that turns buttery when cooked and a sweet taste, a reflection of their high sugar content. Beet leaves have a peppery, bitter taste similar to that of Swiss chard.
Beets are native to the Mediterranean. The wild beet, the ancestor of beets as we known them today, is thought to have originated in North Africa and grew wild along the coasts of Asia and Europe during prehistoric times. During these early days, people ate only the beet leaves, ignoring the roots. The Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate the beet for their roots. The value of cultivated beets grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar. Around this time, beets were brought to the United States where they flourished.
Today, the United States along with Russia, France, Poland, and Germany are the leading producers of commercial beets.
Low in calories and high in fiber, beets are a hearty, sweet treat to warm up any dish. A half cup of fresh, sliced beets contains just 37 calories. Most of these calories are from sugars but this serving size also provides 2 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein.
Beets are naturally high is sodium with a half cup of fresh beets containing 65 mg. Most canned beets contain additional sodium, typically around 300 mg per cup. The sodium content can be minimized by draining and rinsing the beets in cold water.
Beets are an excellent source of folate, providing 17% of daily values and a source of vitamin C, providing 5% of daily values. Beets are also a good source of several minerals. A half cup provides 259 mg of potassium (17% of daily values) and 14% of daily values for manganese. This serving size also contains around 5% each of the suggested daily intake for iron and magnesium.
Beets obtain their deep purple color from plant pigments called betalains. Betanin (betacyanins) is responsible for giving beets their deep, crimson red color. Vulgaxanthin (betaxanthins) is the dominant pigment in yellow beets. These plant chemicals have been shown to provide excellent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support. In addition to betalains, beets contain the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
Betalain pigments are somewhat unusual due to their nitrogen content. Possible because of this abundance of nitrites, beetroot juice has been found to improve performance in athletes.
Selection & Storage
Although their growing season runs from June through October, beets can be found throughout the year.
When selecting, choose small or medium sized beets, with smooth skin and firm roots. Smaller beets may be so tender that peeling won’t be necessary after cooking. Avoid beets that are soft and spongy or shriveled and bruised. Each of these indicates spoilage. Be sure to avoid bulbs that are hairy which is an indicator of age and toughness.
When storing beets, cut off the majority of the leaves and stem; this will prevent moisture from being pulled away from the root. Be sure to leave a bit of stem attached to prevent the roots from bleeding. Store the beets unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will keep this way for up to three weeks.
If you plan to consume the greens, look for greens that are fresh and tender with a vibrant green color. Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag where they will keep for about four days.
For those who don’t have the time or inclination to cook fresh beets, canned beets are a good alternative. Look for brands like S&W which offers sliced or julienned beets. But, be mindful of the sodium content which can be upwards of 300 mg per serving.
Beets can be boiled, steamed, pickled, peeled, or roasted. In Eastern Europe, beet soup or borsch is a popular dish. Jews traditionally eat beets on Rosh Hashanah.
When preparing fresh beets, no salt is necessary in the cooking water as beets are naturally high in sodium. For those more strapped for time, using prepared beets in a can makes it easy to add this nutritious vegetable to salads.
It is important to note that beets are not as hardy as they appear. The smallest bruise or puncture will cause beets’ purple-red pigments to bleed. Beets are also extremely temperature sensitive. When cooking, treat beets as a delicate food, even though the bulbs may seem rock solid. Unlike some other phytonutrients, betalains undergo a steady loss of potency as the length of cooking time is increased. For a faster cooking time, cut beets into quarters leaving 2 inches of tap root and 1 inch of stem on the beets.
For a simple salad, add sliced beets and white kidney beans or garbanzo beans to dark leafy greens like arugula. Add a little goat cheese and top with a vinaigrette dressing. For a fantastic side to warm you up during the chilly season, try Beets with Dill and Walnuts. If you don’t have the time to prepare fresh beets, just use sliced canned beets instead.
If using the beet greens, the leaves can be prepared much like that of spinach or Swiss chard.
When preparing beets for a recipe, it is best to wear kitchen gloves. The red pigment in beets is quick to stain hands and counter tops. If your hands get stained, rub lemon juice directly onto your skin to remove the stain. For cutting boards and plastic containers, use a bleach solution.
The betanins in beets are used as red food colorants to intensify the color of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams, jellies, ice cream and breakfast cereal, just to name a few. Beet colorant is also the traditional dye for pink lemonade.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.