Introduction to Beets
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Beets are also referred to as blood turnips and are members of a flowering plant belonging to the Beta vulgaris species. Beets are mainly cultivated for their roots but the green tops are edible also. There are nine other members of the Beta genus, all having the common name beet however Beta vulgaris is the most commercially important variety. The root provides ecological value by providing food for a variety of animals, and it holds commercial and important nutritional value for humans.
There are four major cultivar groups. The garden beet is mainly used as a vegetable whose roots and leaves are edible. The sugar beet is used for sugar production, the mangel-wulzel is grown as food for livestock and the Swiss chard is cultivated for its edible leaves. Approximately 30% of the world’s production of sugar is derived from beets.
Beet roots are typically deep purple colour but white and golden varieties are also available. The leaves have a slightly bitter taste while the round root is sweet tasting. Due to the high level of sugar content in beets, they are very tasty even when consumed raw, but usually they are cooked or pickled.
The world’s top Paralympic gold medallist, David Weir credits his success to drinking beet juice regularly. It is believed that nutrients in beets boost stamina. World’s top commercial growers of beets include USA, Russia, Poland, Germany and France.
History of Beets
The beets we see today have evolved from wild sea-beet, a native along coasts from India all the way to Britain. The earliest recorded mention of beets is seen in the 8th century B.C.E in Mesopotamia. According to Roman and Jewish sources beets were already domesticated by the 1st century B.C.E. in the Mediterranean basin. It was the leaves of the very first domesticated varieties that were used for consumption. Remains of beet have been unearthed at the 3rd century Saqqara pyramid located at Thebes, Egypt, and burnt beets have also been discovered at a Neolithic site in the Netherlands. It is believed that the name of the vegetable is derived from the Greek letter beta, as the inflated root looks like the Greek B.
Romans cultivated beets intensely and their recipes included cooking beets with wine and honey. Apicius, a well-known gourmet of the times, used them in broths and even suggested using them in salads dressed with mustard, vinegar and oil in his book entitled “The Art of Cooking”. Initially beets were more valued for their medicinal properties rather than for food value. They were used as treatment for fevers, wounds and various skin disorders, and constipation. In those days the beet root was longer and thin, resembling a carrot. The rounded shape more common now, did not come into existence until the 16th century.
Beet root grew in popularity during the Victorian times when it was used in cakes and puddings in addition to soups and salads. In the middle 1700s Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist identified sucrose in beets. Later one of his students constructed a sugar beet processing factory which was operational from 1801 until its destruction in the Napoleonic Wars. After World War II, the pickled forms of the vegetable were used most frequently. Beets were introduced to North America by the colonists, and were well established by the 18th century. George Washington is known to have used beets to carry out experiments at Mount Vernon.
Health Benefits of Beets & Stems
Root beets and their greens are a treasure trove of health benefiting nutrients with powerful antioxidant characteristics. Betacyanin is the pigment that gives beet root its rich colour, but more importantly it is an antioxidant. Antioxidants along with the carotenoids and flavonoids are believed to play a role in reducing the oxidation of LDL (bad cholesterol) and preventing its deposits in the arteries. This helps to protect the walls of blood vessels, and reduce blood pressure & cut down on heart attack risks. The betacyanin also helps to rid the body of dangerous toxins while averting development of cancerous tumors like leukemia, lung, colon, skin, breast, liver and prostate. The carotenoids, zeaxanthin and lutein in raw beets aid in maintaining the health of the retina.
The folic acid in beet roots is necessary for normal tissue growth and the development of a baby’s spinal cord. It also aids in preventing spinal cord defects like spina bifida. The iron is great for mothers to be also, as it provides an energy boost to mothers experiencing fatigue during pregnancy while preventing anaemia.
Silica in the beet root helps the body to fully absorb calcium, which is needed for healthy bones, thereby lowering the risks of osteoporosis. Even though beets contain a lot of sugar, it has almost no fat and few calories. Its low (2.9) Glycaemic Load means its conversion to sugars is very slow, thus making it a good candidate for keeping sugar levels stable. The high content of nitrates in beets helps to postpone progression of dementia. The nitric oxide produced in the blood upon consumption of beets helps to increase blood flow to the brain.
Beetroot was used as an aphrodisiac by ancient Romans. Science tells us that the high content of boron in beets is directly linked with human sex hormone production. Being a high fibre food, consumption of beets aids in digestion and colon cleansing. The oxalic acid in raw beets dilutes inorganic calcium remnants in the body. Remains of inorganic calcium are linked with many chronic diseases like arthritis, eye problems, arteriosclerosis, heart disease and kidney stones.
Nutritional Value of Beets & Greens
Each 100 gram serving of beetroot only has 38 kcal, but 1.7 grams of protein, 1.9 grams of fibre and 7.6 grams of carbohydrates. It has almost no fat (0.1g) and only 0.1 grams of sodium. The same one hundred gram serving provides 8% of the Recommended Daily Amount of vitamin C, 75% Folic Acid, 11% potassium, 7% iron, 3% zinc and 4% magnesium for the average adult women. A mere three baby beetroots provide one out of the five recommended portions of vegetables and fruit.
The greens of beets are a great source of carotenoids, flavonoids, anti-oxidants, and vitamin A. These compounds are found in greater quantities in the green than in the root of the beet. Vitamin A is needed for hearty mucus membranes, skin and good vision.
How to Use Beets
Prepare beets by rinsing them under cold water, while being careful not to tear the skin. Beet juice can stain the skin, so use gloves; if hands still get stained, then just rub lemon juice on the affected area to remove the stain. To ensure that you get the maximum nutritional benefits from beets, it is best not to over-cook them. Steaming the vegetable for fifteen minutes preserves their nutritional value and flavour.
Beets bleed quiet a bit when put in water. To limit bleeding and preserve maximum amounts of nutrients, it is best to leave at least 1 inch of the greens on top and the entire root intact. Then boil them whole and unpeeled. Once soft, remove from heat and allow them to cool sufficiently so they can be handled with ease. Now roots and if desired the stems too may be removed and the skin just rubbed off. In this condition they can be diced, chopped, sliced or even grated for use in desired recipes.
To roast beets, remove the greens and root and peel the beet. Next, slice them and place them in a roasting pan topped off with a light coating of oil. Sprinkle salt, dried thyme, oregano, and dill to taste and roast at 400° F for approximately 25 – 30 minutes. Other methods of cooking beets include steaming, sautéing, or just consuming raw.
Beet greens are not only edible but very healthy also. Greens should be prepared soon after purchase to gain full benefit of their nutrients. Wash the greens thoroughly under cold running water then chop coarsely. Place in a sauce pan with about half an inch of water. Greens cook down a lot so make sure you start with plenty of them! Squeeze the juice from one lemon in the cooking water and add salt to taste. Cook over high heat without cover, once the water is all evaporated and the greens soft, they are ready to be eaten.
Juicing beet roots is one of the best ways to get the full benefit of nutrients in this vegetable. Whether on their own or in combination with other ingredients, they provide a refreshing way to quench your thirst. Here is a great tasting recipe you should try.
Zesty Beet, Pineapple & Cucumber Juice
- 1 small beet root (may even use a couple of inches of the greens)
- 1 small cucumber
- 1 cup of pineapple pieces
- Clean the beet root thoroughly, ensuring that all the dirt has been removed.
- If the cucumber is waxed, peel it, otherwise just wash it and it is ready for use.
- Remove the pineapple skin and chop into pieces, (only one cup is required, the remaining may be saved for later use.)
- Press all fruits through a juicer and serve chilled in tall glasses.
There are numerous clinical trials that back the health benefits of beet roots. One such study published in the online journal of American Heart Association ‘Hypertension’ discovered beets lowered blood pressure within 24 hours of drinking beet root juice. This is good news for people with high blood pressure as it provides a natural way to control blood pressure and perhaps one day limit the use of medicines.
In a separate study, it was found that the betacyanin in beet roots slows the growth of breast and prostate tumours by over 12 percent. This is great news because the slowdown of cancer translates into more time for treatment of the cancer before it gets to the fatal stage.
Drinking beet root juice enhances stamina to exercise up to 16% longer. A University of Exeter study found that the nitrates in beet root juice reduce the oxygen intake, thus making exercise less tiresome. This level of reduction in oxygen intake cannot be attained by any other known means. Other than athletes, this finding can benefit the elderly and those suffering from metabolic, respiration, and cardiovascular diseases.