Beets, in my experience, fall into either love it or loath it category. For those who can’t stand it, beetroot’s dirt-like taste is the main reason. Those who love it, look beyond beets’ ‘earthy’ taste and prize them for the versatility beets lend to recipes ranging from appetizer to main dish to desserts. The main draw of beets, however, is their magical health-promoting attributes, which range from decreasing the risks of heart diseases to providing sustained energy. In my own kitchen, getting different varieties of beets in the CSA share, eating amazing food with beets on my global travels, and experiencing beets’ health benefits in personal life turned beets from being a side character to the main hero. My goal in demystifying beets is to grow this veggie’s appreciation in our kitchens to promote beets’ unbeatable culinary and health benefits.
Beets have a long history in human diet
Beets have been present in human diet for thousands of years and for most part of that period, beets were primarily used as medicine. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews were among the first to cultivate beets for beet greens. The root, in ancient times, had medicinal uses. The beetroot, red and round as we know it today, did not appear and become popular until the 16th century. The popularity of beetroot in recipes increased by the 19th century, mainly in central and eastern Europe. In 1900s , the most popular way to eat beets was in pickled form. According to the book Super Food: Beetroot, beetroot was the most available pickled vegetable after the Second World War. In my opinion, beetroot– owing to people’s heightened interest in whole foods and nutrition, a growing food blogging culture where bloggers invent new ways of cooking practically anything, and scientists’ interest in the beets’ medicinal benefits– has made a splendid comeback in our diets in recent years.
Beets Facts: Buying/storing tips and nutrition information
Source: chart created by Traffic Light Cook based on extensive personal experience as well as information from the United States Department of Agriculture
Health benefits of beets
My earliest memories of beets are around my mom’s beets/carrot/tomato soup, which was often accompanied by a verbal promotion, “beets increase amount of blood in your body,” which she had heard from her elders. And she was not off. Beets are high in folate, a vitamin that promotes red blood cells growth and lack of which can cause anemia. In addition to delivering a high dose of essential vitamins and minerals , beets have other health-promoting attributes.
In 1998, three U.S. scientists–Robert F. Furchgott, PhD, Louis J. Ignarro, PhD, and Ferid Murad, MD, PhD— won Nobel prize in medicine for discovering Nitric Oxide (NO) as a signal molecule. Simplified, these scientists unveiled NOs magical role in preventing cardiovascular diseases. The role of NO has further been recognized in better functioning of nervous system and preventing infections. Why I am harping on the benefits of NO: beets are a great source of nitrates and hence a natural source of increasing NO availability in our bodies, which in turn can unlock a host of health benefits .
Beets are also naturally high in betalain–the pigment that gives beets its color, which is a powerful antioxidant that offers anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. In red beets the pigment is known as betacyanin and in golden/yellow beets betaxanthin. This earthy vegetable also is a source of high fiber.
Beets for centuries have also been used as aphrodisiac in many cultures. According to the book Beet the Odds, from the earliest times of medicine beets were used to treat sexual performance among other ailments. Here is a list of health benefits that scientists have linked with eating beets:
Beets: Other observations
Beeturia: if your urine or stool color is reddish pink after eating beets, don’t be alarmed. The research on this subject informs that some 10-14% of beet eaters get the condition known as “beeturia.” Although the condition is harmless, some studies that suggest people with iron deficiency or malabsorption are more likely to get this condition. If you do see pink, maybe it’s worth talking with your physician to check iron levels .
Beet sugar: when I started using beets regularly during the beet season, the first fact I researched was if eating beets added a lot of sugar to my diet as beets are also used to produce sugar. Here is what I found: sugar is made from white sugar beets, which have higher sugar content of 20% compared to 8-10% for red beets. Moreover, there is a vast difference between consuming highly processed sugar (from beet) and natural beet, which is a naturally low-calorie food with 60 calories per cup.
The real challenge (or bliss): How to incorporate beets into your diet?
If you already enjoy beets in your diet, hopefully this information has reinforced your love of beets. However, if you hate beets, maybe I can convince you to give them another try. Here are some tips that can help beet transition in your diet easier.
- Try multiple times: if you have kids, your pediatrician probably told you that it can take up to 8-10 tries before your child would even taste a new food. How about giving at least a few tries to this awesome veggie. If you don’t like in one recipe, try in another. If you don’t like it raw, try cooked. If the earthy flavor is a huge issue, mask the flavor.
- Start with raw: use raw grated beets in salad or juice them; raw beets offer the maximum nutrition. If you don’t like the taste, add a favorite dressing and/or mix with other favorite veggies. In juices, adding an apple or orange easily masks the earthy taste (stay tuned for Beet energy juice recipe).
- Learn to cook beets: If I am not juicing beets, I often cook them to use in a variety of recipes–salads, soups (my favorite are borscht and my mom’s simple beet/carrot/tomato soup), hummus, burgers, curries, roasted vegetables, and desserts (possibilities are endless). It is important to cook beets with a method that preserves the maximum nutrition. Cooked beets develop a sweeter profile (no wonder, in Victorian times they were used in desserts) and hence may be more palatable . I have tried pretty much every method of cooking over the years and found the following to be effective in saving the nutrition. I never boil beets as most of the nutrients leach into the boiling water.
- Steam it: you can steam beets in either pressure cooker or over stop top in a steamer basket. If beets are small, they can be steamed whole, but if you have beets bigger than 2″, then you may want to cut them in half. While steaming, always leave beet skin and 1″ of top on to save the nutrients.
- Roast it: preheat oven to 375°F. Trim the top and bottom parts leaving beet skin on. Make shallow cuts in beets a few places with a sharp knife; add beets with 2-4 tbsp water to an oven-proof dish covered with an oven-proof cover or aluminum foil. Roast for about one hour. If beets are bigger than 2″, it may take longer (about 75 minutes) to roast them. Once roasted, insert a knife to check for doneness; you should be able to easily insert a knife into a roasted beet. Upon roasting, beets become sweeter and creamier.
- Steamed or roasted beets offer a lot of possibilities in making recipes ranging from soups, salads, curries, and more (stay tuned for awesome beet recipes). I often don’t refrigerate roasted or steamed beets more than 2-3 days. I never freeze beets as I am not sure (at least yet) if the freezing process preserves or destroys beet nutrients.
TLC Beets Rating: Green
- Beets have a long history in human diet, providing ample proof of health benefits and culinary uses.
- Science has reinforced health benefits of beets.
- Beets offer variety in taste and texture in culinary experience.