Information on the health benefits of beets from the George Mateljan Foundation, a nonprofit entity that promotes healthy eating (on the Web at www.whfoods.com):
It is difficult to believe how the hardy, crunchy, often rough-looking exterior of raw beets can be transformed into something wonderfully soft and buttery once they are cooked. While beets are available throughout the year, their season runs from June through October when the youngest, most tender beets are easiest to find.
Edible green leaves are attached to the tapered round or oblong root portions that we know as beets. While we often think of beets having a reddish-purple hue, some varieties are white, golden-yellow or even rainbow colored. The sweet taste of beets reflects their high sugar content, making them an important raw material for the production of refined sugar; they have the highest sugar content of all vegetables, yet are very low in calories.
Remember all those legendary Russian centenarians? Beets, frequently consumed either pickled or in borscht, the traditional Russian soup, may be one reason behind their long and healthy lives. These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer.
The pigment that gives beets their rich, purple-crimson color - betacyanin - also is a powerful cancer-fighting agent. Beets' potential effectiveness against colon cancer, in particular, has been demonstrated in several studies.
In one study, animals under the double stress of chemically induced colon cancer and high cholesterol were divided into two groups. One group received a diet high in beet fiber while the other group served as a control. The beet fiber-fed animals rose to the challenge by increasing their activity of two antioxidant enzymes in the liver, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione-S-transferase. The liver is the body's primary detoxification organ where toxic substances are broken down and eliminated, a process that generates a lot of free radicals. Glutathione peroxidase and are the bodyguards for liver cells, protecting them from free radical attack, so they can continue to protect us.
In other animal studies, scientists have noted that animals fed beet fiber had an increase in their number of colonic CD8 cells - special immune cells responsible for detecting and eliminating abnormal cells. With the increased surveillance provided by these additional CD8 cells, the animals in one of the studies given beet fiber had fewer pre-cancerous changes.
In stomach cancer patients, when scientists compared the effects of fruit and vegetable juices on the formation of nitrosamines - cancer-causing compounds produced in the stomach from chemicals called nitrates - beet juice was found to be a potent inhibitor of the cell mutations caused by these compounds. Nitrates are commonly used as a chemical preservative in processed meats. Next time you indulge in a hot dog or bologna sandwich, safeguard your stomach by washing it down with a healthy serving of beet juice.
Protection against heart disease
In the first study mentioned above, not only did protective antioxidant activity increase in the livers of beet fiber-fed animals, but also their total cholesterol dropped 30 percent, their triglycerides dropped 40 percent (elevated triglycerides, the form in which fats are transported in the blood, are a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease), and their HDL (beneficial cholesterol) level increased significantly. Protection against birth defects: Beets are particularly rich in the B vitamin folate, which is essential for normal tissue growth. Eating folate-rich foods is especially important during pregnancy since without adequate folate, the infant's spinal column does not develop properly, a condition called neural tube defect. The daily requirement for folate is 400 micrograms. Just one cup of boiled, sliced beets contains 136 micrograms of folate - 34 percent of the daily requirement.
Both beets and chard are different varieties within the same plant family - beta vulgaris - and their edible leaves share a resemblance in both taste and texture. Attached to the beet's green leaves is a round or oblong root, the part conjured up in most people's minds by the word "beet." Although typically a beautiful reddish-purple hue, beets also come in varieties that feature white or golden roots. No matter what their color, however, beet roots aren't as hardy as they look; the smallest bruise or puncture will cause their red-purple pigments, which contain beneficial flavonoids called anthycyanins, to bleed, especially during cooking.
Beets' sweet taste reflects their high sugar content, which makes beets an important source for the production of refined sugar. Raw beet roots have a crunchy texture that turns soft and buttery when they are cooked. Beet leaves have a lively, bitter taste similar to chard. They are the main ingredient in the traditional eastern European soup, borscht. Beets are delicious eaten raw, but are more typically cooked or pickled.
The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa and grew wild along Asian and European seashores. In these earlier times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots. The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets to use their roots as food. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe where they were first used for animal fodder and later for human consumption becoming more popular in the 16th century.
Beets' value grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar, and the first sugar factory was built in Poland. When access to sugar cane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar, catalyzing its popularity. Around this time, beets were also first brought to the United States, where they now flourish. Today the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, the Russian Federation, France, Poland, France and Germany.
How to select and store
Choose small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won't be needed after they are cooked.
Avoid beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage. Shriveled or flabby should also be avoided as these are signs that the roots are aged, tough and fibrous.
While the quality of the greens does not reflect that of the roots, if you are going to consume this very nutritious part of the plant, look for greens that appear fresh, tender, and have a lively green color.
Store beets unwashed in the refrigerator crisper where they will keep for two to four weeks. Cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, so they do not pull away moisture away from the root. Leave about 2 inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from "bleeding." Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag where they will keep fresh for about four days.
Raw beets do not freeze well since they tend to become soft upon thawing. Freezing cooked beets is fine; they'll retain their flavor and texture.
How to enjoy
Tips for preparing beets:
Cook beets lightly. Studies show beets' anti-cancer activity is diminished by heat.
Don't peel beets until after cooking. When bruised or pierced, beets bleed, losing some of their vibrant color and turning a duller brownish red. To minimize bleeding, wash beets gently under cool running water, taking care not to tear the skin - this tough outer layer helps keep most of beets' pigments inside the vegetable. To prevent bleeding when boiling beets, leave them whole with their root ends and one inch of stem attached.
Beets' color can be modified during cooking. Adding an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice or vinegar will brighten the color while an alkaline substance such as baking soda will often cause them to turn a deeper purple. Salt will blunt beets' color, so add only at the end of cooking if needed.
Since beet juice can stain your skin, wearing kitchen gloves is a good idea when handling beets. If your hands become stained during the cleaning and cooking process, simply rubbing some lemon juice on them will remove the stain.
A few quick serving ideas:
Simply grate raw beets for a delicious and colorful addition to salads or decorative garnish for soups.
Add chunks of beet when roasting vegetables in the oven.
Serving homemade vegetable juice? A quarter of a beet will turn any green drink into a sweet pink concoction, pleasing both the eyes and the taste buds.
Healthy saute beet greens with other braising greens such as chard and mustard greens.
Marinate steamed beets in fresh lemon juice, olive oil and fresh herbs.
If you start to see red when you increase your consumption of beets, don't be alarmed. You're just experiencing beeturia, or a red or pink color to your urine or stool. No need to panic; the condition is harmless.
Beets and oxalates
Beet greens and, to a lesser extent the roots, contain oxalic acid. Oxalates are naturally occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating beets. Since oxalates can also interfere with the absorption of calcium, individuals trying to build their calcium status may also want to avoid these foods, or if taking calcium supplements, may want to take them several hours before or after eating beets or beet greens.