In Season: The Beetroot (Beta Vulgaris)
Resident blogger Megan Mclean reflects on beetroot’s magical history
The beetroot, or “beet” as it’s commonly referred to, is actually comprised of two different sections: the taproot which is the main body of the vegetable, and the beet greens which are the colourful leaves shooting out of the top of the taproot.
Both parts of beetroot are edible and offer healing properties when consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet.
For a vegetable of such magnificent ruby red, it’s only fitting that the beetroot has a somewhat magical history. According to ancient Assyrian texts, beetroots were farmed and consumed in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – in 800BC.
The Greeks were also fond of this earthy-flavoured vegetable – even if they did only eat the beet greens. The taproot section wasn’t wasted, however, as it was offered as a gift to the sun god, Apollo; used as a medicinal substance to heal wounds, and even as a laxative.
At this point in time, the beetroot is thought to have been more of a carrot-like shape, the rounded root evolving only after thousands of years of production. Other less whimsical sources state that the beetroot evolved from the wild seabeet off the coasts of India and Britain. These days you can find this love-hate vegetable very easily all over the world, especially in Europe, Scandinavia and Russia.
For those who haven’t yet braved the bold flavours of the beetroot, what does the beet actually taste like? Well, taste varies enormously depending on preparation and cooking method, but the general consensus is that beets have a somewhat earthy or muddy taste about them.
It’s important to point out that this taste isn’t due to actual soil and the flavour will remain as strong as ever however hard you scrub at the surface. This taste is because of an organic compound within the beetroot called geosmin. There are two theories relating to geosmin: 1 – this compound is a by-product of beetroot metabolism, or 2 – it’s synthesised by micro-organisms within the soil, then taken up into the growing beet.
Either way, if the earthy taste and farm-like smell aren’t your cup of tea, try to avoid the peel as this contains six times more geosmin than the beet itself.
What colour are beetroots? Most answers will be somewhere in the ball park of ruby red, perhaps a purple here and there. But, believe it or not, this blanket opinion isn’t true. There’s a whole secret world of varieties out there that UK supermarkets haven’t yet exposed us to. Here are some examples…
The Golden Beet – not quite as sweet as red beets but sometimes favoured because of their weaker, earthy taste and sunny appearance.
The Chioggia Beet – or ‘The Candy Cane Beet’ if we are going by appearance. Slicing into this beetroot reveals beautiful natural stripes inside with orange, yellow or red-white.
The Cylindra Beet – a red-pink colored variety that contains very little fibre, but with a surprisingly sweet taste, comparable to caramel.
So far, the beetroot is ticking boxes for both appearance and taste, so let’s look at the health benefits next:
Beets contain high levels of biologically active compounds called phytochemicals which, in general, have strong evidence supporting their ability to help prevent disease. Eye-related diseases and their prevention using phytochemicals is one area of research that has shown promising results. It has been found that consuming a diet high in phytochemicals can prevent the progression of glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two phytochemicals of particular interest which can be found in abundance in beet greens, just 1 cup (340g) contains approximately 275g of lutein.
But the majority of the population are not consuming enough of these phytochemicals, despite the fact that benefits have been seen from taking just 10mg of lutein and 2mg of zeaxanthin a day and, with no upper toxicity level for either phytochemical, an occasional cup of beet greens will give you a spectacular health kick.
Lowers risk of heart disease
Beets are a fantastic source of anti-inflammatory compounds that work by lowering the bodies level of homocysteine, an amino acid which can cause inflammation that damages our blood vessels and arteries. In particular folate, betaine, isobtanin and vulgaxanthin stand out as having excellent anti-inflammatories properties which could help prevent heart diseases such as atherosclerosis.
Improved blood flow
The production of nitric oxide within our bodies may sound daunting at first, however research shows it has extensive health benefits, and lucky for us its production is triggered every single time you consume a beetroot.
Nitrates within the vegetable are converted to nitric oxide, which itself is a neurotransmitter with the ability to expand blood vessels and thus lower blood pressure.
Nitric oxide has a positive effect on our hearts not just from this drop-in blood pressure, but also from the increased blood flow through expanded blood vessels, potentially reducing the symptoms of clogged arteries, chest pain, angina and coronary heart disease.
Adding to this ever-lasting ode to nitic oxide is the fact that blood flow will not only be increased to the heart, but also to our brains. Studies carried out on older adults investigated the effects of a high-nitrate diet on mental functioning and concluded that there was increased flow of blood to the frontal lobes, meaning that incorporating high nitrate foods (including beets) in a diet may reduce the risk of dementia.
A word of caution
But before you go jazzing up every salad with sliced Chioggia beet or drinking 500mls of beetroot juice on the way to bed every night, it must be advised that you should remain calm after visiting the toilet the next day.
Discoloured urine and stools are an unnegotiable side effect after eating any decent quantity of beetroot and are nothing to worry about at all!
To add to the beetroot’s perfect track record of appearance, taste and health benefits, it’s also immensely versatile and can be eaten raw, cooked, pickled, juiced or as the main ingredient in the Eastern European soup – Borscht.
If boiling your beetroot, it is best to leave the peel on to prevent the loss of nutrients into the cooking water, once boiled the skins should fall away easily and the root can be sliced, pureed or diced. The highly nutritious beet greens can make a wonderful change from spinach when wilted down and eaten as a side.
Here are just a few ideas on how to incorporate beets into your meals and snacks –
- Stir fried beet with roasted garlic and sesame oil
- Wrap beets in tin foil and roast over heat (perfect for cooking on the campfire!)
- Honey roasted beetroot and carrots
- Beetroot brownies
- Beetroot & mint hummus
This information is all well and good for fresh beetroots pulled straight from the soil and unaltered until reaching our kitchens, but what about pickled beetroot?
Beetroots often don’t stay ripe for long which makes pickling an attractive preservation method for the vegetables shelf life and also many of its health benefits. Pickled beetroots are high in potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, fibre and are low in fat. Sodium intake must be kept in mind if eating this form of beetroot often, one cup (340g) of pickled beetroot contains more than one third of the recommended daily sodium intake.
So that’s that, a truly magical vegetable with not only the powers to wow a dinner table of guests, but also with the ability to heal the body while enhancing life, without a doubt a food fit for the seven wonders of the world.
“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious,” – Tom Robbins, author
For more healthy food inspiration from Megan, check out Oats & Ends.