Plant Profile: Beetroot
Amarantaceae (formerly Chenopodiaceae)
Yet to become a vegetable gardener, I have never grown beets. They are a hardy grower, though, and probably a good vegetable to start with if ever I do. Beets survive in cold Northern temperatures, even freezing and frosts. This gives them the designation of long season crop, so if you plant them in the spring, they will give you lots of produce all the way until winter. They store well in a cool, dry place which means if you love beets definitely grow them for an everlasting supply that you can use fresh, pickled or freeze and can for later use. Additionally, by growing beets, you are assured the treasure of the nutritious tops. When beet greens grow about 6 inches above the ground they should be gathered and used quickly as they do not store well like the roots.
With the goodness that beets hold, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that they are associated with health problems. The nemesis is sugar. In the 1700’s, a German scientist discovered that beets are high in sucrose and can produce sugar equally as well as sugar cane. This was a time when sugar was outrageously expensive and difficult to obtain in Europe. It was a great advantage to find another source. Fast-forward to today, and beets are now largely grown conventionally from genetically modified seeds that grow plentifully because they are resistant to herbicides. Beets now account for more than half of sugar production in the United States, 35% globally. The problem is there is a hot debate regarding the safety of foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the jury is still out. As a preventative measure, many people are justifiably attempting to avoid GMOs. Avoiding excess sugar and processed foods whether to avoid GMOs or for other reasons is always a good choice. By doing so, you are voting for safer food with your dollars. We may have little control over what is going on with big business agriculture, but we certainly can support our small, local farmers who are offering us organic products either at farmer’s markets or in community support agricultural programs and beets are often abundant here. Alternately if you have access to a supermarket selling organic beets, I suggest these are the way to go.
Beets are high in sugar, 15-20% pure sugar. Different than cane sugar, beet sugar is softer and will not crystallize as readily. It does not require conversion in the body by digestive processes for absorption. As a result, despite a high concentration, the sugar in beets is used for energy, imparting vitality as a vegetable would be expected to do, rather than causing elevated blood sugar levels, something not wanted and a big concern in today’s health. From a nutritional perspective, beetroot is high in fiber, folic acid and manganese as well as flavonoids and carotenoids and only a small portion is needed to reap the benefit of all of its good. Betalain is the chemical substance that makes beets unique and sets them apart from other vegetables or herbs. The rich, red color is due to betalain, which is also responsible for strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, detoxification, and anti-cancer activity, all of which support fundamental liver and heart function.
Sweet, predominantly, but the flavor of a beet also is affected by mineral salt components. Geosmin, a safe, non-toxic, organic compound produced by microorganisms in the soil imparts an earthy taste to beets that is somewhat rich but also sort of muddy, which does not sound appetizing at all. Lemon juice and vinegar degrade geosmin and eliminate any effects it may have which makes sense because it is a standard in beet preparation to prepare them as a salad or roasted vegetable tossed lightly in either of these.
Beets as roots retain an earthiness to their smell. Again it is the chemical geosmin that is the responsible party for the distinctive wet dirt smell of beets that is detectable even in very small amounts. The chemical reactions of this compound produce a volatile alcohol that is easy to smell even without a sensitive nose. An interesting tidbit of history theorizes that our hunter-gather ancestors used the smell of geosmin to detect water sources; perhaps beets were first discovered in the summer heat when thirst quenching was a primary concern.
Beets have existed since ancient times. The emotions of the heart are enmeshed in the folklore surrounding this vegetable. Love in Greek mythology depended on the presence of beets. Not only did Aphrodite eat beets for their ability to enhance her beauty, she also compelled Apollo to eat them with her because she knew if a man and woman ate from the same beet, their love would be everlasting. Ancient Romans valued the beet for its ability to act as a mood relaxant or aphrodisiac. Perhaps they gained this knowledge through experience, but now the high mineral content, specifically boron, an integral part of hormone production is the known culprit. Mostly it is the red color that makes beets the most popular recipe addition around Valentine’s Day. Even if none of the legends are true, eating beets is healthy way to work toward positive emotional encounters.
Culinary and Cooking
With the push to increase vegetable intake, the popular idea of hiding vegetables in recipes has evolved. I am not a proponent of sneaking vegetables into the picky eater’s diet, often that of children, to add nutrients. It seems dishonest and does not encourage a love for eating vegetables just because they can taste wonderful. I have to admit I consider it with beets though. Chocolate cake made with beets is so moist and dark and rich. If not in baking, there are a variety of different ways to use beets. Traditionally they were eaten pickled or as borscht, a cold Russian soup, but neither are darlings for modern cooking. Options for a rosy color addition include blending in hummus or dips; mashing with potatoes; processing into pancakes; filling ravioli; blending in juice or a smoothie; slicing into a tart; or mixing in a salad with broccoli or leafy greens and lemon dressing. For those who love beets, just boiling or roasting is enough.
Beet juice, referred to in herbal medicine making terms as a succus, is the concentrated form for obtaining highest benefits. As an herbal preparation, one to two teaspoons taken two or three times throughout the day would be considered medicinal. Most significantly, beets stimulate liver function providing cleansing and protecting activity. Beetroot succus can be an important addition to any liver detoxifying protocol and also why beets have been promoted as part of juicing cleanses. Beets are blood building due to easily absorbable and high iron content that can improve hemoglobin and hematocrit levels if iron deficiency anemia exists. Studies have shown beets normalize blood pressure, either lowering it if it is high or increasing it if it is too low, providing protection for the heart. Studies are also unfolding the antioxidant and anti-cancer protection from the red colored betalain. On the cautionary end of beetroot use, they are high in oxalates, more so cooked than raw, so should be limited for people who are at risk of kidney stones.