When it Comes to Nutrition, the Beet Goes On

The Folklore. A former wallflower of the food world, the beet has turned into a debutante, appearing in fresh and novel ways on fine-dining menus. Dating back to prehistoric times, the ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean used to eat only the beet greens, reserving the root for medicinal use. The ancient Romans were among the first to cultivate the plump ruby root as a food, which French chefs made popular in the 19th century. Beets were discovered at this time to be a good source of concentrated sugar, and were used in refined sugar production as well as a food.

The Facts. Commonly known as beetroot, table beet or blood turnip, the beet (beta vulgaris) is in the same family as Swiss chard. Though mostly reddish purple, beets come in white, golden and even candy-striped colors. Betacyanin, the powerful antioxidant that lends beets their deep hue, has cancer-protective effects. A good source of folate, dietary fiber, potassium, manganese and vitamin C, beets are plump with important nutrients. Though they have a sweet taste due to their high natural sugar content, beets only contain 74 calories per cup.

The Findings. Research links beets with health promotion, in particular, protection against heart disease. One animal study, published in the scientific journal Food/Nahrung in June 2000 (the name was changed to Molecular Nutrition and Food Research in 2004), showed that a diet high in beet fiber increased the activity of two enzymes in the liver that are important elements in the antioxidant defense system. In addition, it significantly reduced “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increased “good” HDL cholesterol levels, thus promoting protection against heart disease. Beets also contain the amino acid betaine, which has been shown to lower levels of homocysteine and biomarkers of inflammation that are linked to heart disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes, according to a study published in the July 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The Finer Points. Beets are at their peak from June to October, but can be enjoyed all year. Choose only small or medium roots that are firm and smooth-skinned, deeply colored and without spots or bruises. If eating the greens, look for fresh, green leaves. Beets will store unwashed and refrigerated for two to four weeks, while their greens will last up to four days. Wash gently and cut all but two inches of stem from the beet and keep the root intact. Peel after cooking to prevent the nutrient-rich color from bleeding. The sweet and versatile beet may be boiled, steamed, roasted or saut?ed. Raw or cooked, beets add vibrancy and texture to most any dish. Try grating them into crisp slaws, dicing them into flavorful salads, and serving them with a tangy dressing as a side dish.

?Lori Zanteson

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