Written by: Theresa Helfer MS, RD chef trained at the Natural Institute for Health and Culinary Arts
Beets, the often forgotten root vegetable that has either never been tried or is disliked due to childhood memories of mushy, overcooked or canned beets. It’s time to reintroduce these savory vegetables into your culinary repertoire. These sweet, earthy vegetables are packed with nutrients and health promoting antioxidants and are worthy of more attention.
The most common beet is purple, but they also come in yellow and white. The most visually spectacular beet is the Chioggia, which has white and pink rings that decorate any plate. The group of antioxidants in beets is called betalains, which have benefits far beyond some of the more common phytonutrients such as beta-carotene.
According to a recent study, beets have one of the highest Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) values among all the vegetables.[i] The anti-oxidant betacyanins give beets their red-violet color and betaxanthins are yellowish in color and are found in white and yellow beets. Regardless of color, beets are an excellent source of folate and a good source of manganese, potassium, magnesium, iron and fiber.[ii] Together, these nutrients and anti-oxidants make beets rival even the most hallowed of vegetables, kale!
Health promoting properties:
Due to the high concentrations of nutrients and phytochemicals, beets have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and have been studied in supporting the body’s natural detoxification system as well as the cardiovascular system. To reduce inflammation, beets inhibit the activity of cyclooxygenase, an enzyme responsible for triggering an inflammatory cascade.[iii] This is the same action of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin.
Beets are also high in betaine, a form of the B vitamin choline. Choline helps to regulate inflammation by reducing homocysteine, C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers —all of which are indicators of cardiovascular problems such as atherosclerosis. Because inflammation is the root cause of many common chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, this is an extremely important function and one that has shown promising results.
Cooking methods and flavor profiles:
Unlike some phytochemicals, betalains are lost exponentially with cooking time. Therefore, to avoid losses of betalains during cooking, it is important to limit the cooking time of beets. Some ways to reduce cooking times are either to steam, covered over boiling water for 15-20 minutes cut up and roast in the oven, or wrap in foil and bake for about an hour. If boiling beets, make sure to leave the skin intact to hold in more of the powerful pigment (4).[iv] Beets can also be delicious raw, if grated and put into a salad with a flavorful vinaigrette such as the orange vinaigrette (used in the following recipe).
Explore the culinary possibilities of beets. Make borscht, a chilled Russian beet soup, or a creamy beet, tomato and cumin soup. Try pickling beets in the fall for use in salads or as a condiment.
Recipe (by Theresa Helfer)
Roasted Beets with Watercress and Sheep Cheese
- 2 pounds small beets (preferably Chioggia)
- 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for rubbing
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Juice from 1 orange
- 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 2 bunches watercress (6 ounces each); discard thick stems
- 1 bunch arugula
- 6 ounces young sheep cheese, such as pecorino or manchego, shaved
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Rub whole beets with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap beets in aluminum foil or put in a baking dish and cover with foil. Cook about one hour or until a fork can easily pierce the skin. After the beets have cooled slightly, cut into very thin slices or use a mandolin.
- In a lidded jar, combine the 3/4 cup of olive oil with the orange juice, Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar; season the dressing with salt and pepper. Cover and shake until combined. Dress the greens and beets separately to avoid turning the greens purple. Arrange the greens on a platter and sprinkle with beets and shaved cheese.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.
[i] Song W, Derito CM, Liu MK et al. Cellular antioxidant activity of common vegetables. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Jun 9;58(11):6621-9. 2010
[ii] USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl
[iii] Reddy MK, Alexander-Lindo RL and Nair MG. Relative inhibition of lipid peroxidation, cyclooxygenase enzymes, and human tumor cell proliferation by natural food colors. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Nov 16;53(23):9268-73. 2005
[iv] Renner-Nance J. Improving the stability and performance of naturally derived color additives. DD Williamson Support Center Presentation, Louisville, KY, June 8, 2009. Available online at: www.naturalcolors.com/../File/naturalcolors/../Session139-02.pdf. 2009