The Folklore. The ancient Romans considered beet juice an aphrodisiac. They also used beets to treat fevers and constipation. The French discovered the sweetness of sugar beets when Britain cut off its sugarcane supply during the Napoleonic wars.
The Facts. Americans refer to this root vegetable (Beta vulgaris) simply as beets, but the rest of the world knows it as beet- root. Both beetroot and beet greens are edible. Although most beets are processed for cans or jars, fresh beets are readily available at farmers? markets; peak season is June through October. Specialty beets popular in restaurants these days include golden beets, baby beets and Chioggia beets (also called candy cane beets), an heirloom variety with a peppery taste and red and white concentric circles.
Nutritionally, beets are teeming with folate and manganese and a good source of vitamin C, potassium and fiber. Beet greens, like close cousin Swiss chard, are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and the minerals potassium and magnesium, calcium, iron and copper.
The Findings. Like most deep-colored vegetables, beets are loaded with antioxidant phytonutrients like lycopene, anthocyanins and betaine. Recently, a Greek study found that people with higher intakes of betaine and the B vitamin choline had less inflammation, suggesting that these nutrients may help protect against heart disease and other chronic illness.
Other research from Britain has found that drinking two cups of beet juice a day significantly lowered blood pressure in 14 healthy volunteers. Scientists think the nitrates found naturally in beets protect blood vessels and keep them healthy.
The Finer Points. Fresh beets are usually sold in bunches with the greens attached. Look for small, firm, round beets with a dark red color and slender tap root. Avoid big beets, which can be woody, and those that look flabby or wilted. Chop the tops off, leaving just an inch or so, and beets will keep in the refrigerator crisper drawer for up to three weeks. The greens, however, last only a few days. Wash beets well, but avoid breaking the skin, as the color and nutrients can bleed out. This is also the reason beets are best cooked with the skin intact. They can be boiled, baked, roasted, steamed, braised or eaten raw in salads. Our favorite? Wrap beets in foil and roast at 400oF until a fork pierces easily, about 40 minutes; slip skins off with a knife tip.
Beets pair well with flavorful goat, feta and blue cheeses, nuts and citrus fruits. They are ideal in salads, as a soup or a simple side dish, tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with pepper. Remember, however, hands aren’t the only thing beets stain red. Beets can temporarily turn some people’s urine a pink or reddish color, a condition called beeturia.
?Diane Welland, M.S., R.D.