Beating Disease with Beets

Beets, also known in North America as beetroots, table beets, garden beets, or red or golden beets, refers to any of the cultivated varieties of Beta vulgaris grown for their edible taproots, especially B. vulgaris L. subsp. conditiva. Beets are varieties of the same species as chard and belong to the same family of Amaranthaceae as spinach, palak, epazote, lamb’s quarters, quinoa, purslane, tumbleweed, goosefoot, and amaranth.

Beets descend from a wild ancestor, which grew along North African, Asian, and European sea shores. Around 800 BC, an Assyrian text mentions beets as growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Ancient Greeks offered beets to the sun god Apollo in the temple of Delphi.  In ancient times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots, as beets with large, fleshy, edible roots were unknown before the 1st century AD. Ancient people apparently used the root of the wild beet or chard for medicinal purposes only. The Romans used them as an aphrodisiac and as a remedy for fevers and constipation.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Romans wrote recipes for cooking the root of Beta vulgaris. They were probably referring to a fleshy root selected from wild plants. Early recipes suggest boiling the beets in water and salt, or chicken broth. The broth was then drunk. Leftover beets were served with a dressing of oil, vinegar and mustard. The ancient Romans were among the first to cultivate beets to use their roots as food.

The tribes that invaded Rome spread beets throughout northern Europe. In the Middle Ages, beet roots were long and thin, not plump and round as they are today. Beets continued to spread throughout Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, beets were used to treat headache and toothache.

Beets were known in England by the 14th century, when they first appeared in some English recipes. Beet juice was recommended as an easily digested food for the elderly, weak, or infirm.  Bartolomeo Platina, an Italian Renaissance humanist writer and gastronomist, wrote De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine Vulgare (On Right Pleasure and Good Health) in 1460. In it, he included a recipe for a green sauce that contained beet leaves. Platina also mentioned that beetroot, fire roasted and eaten with garlic, helps freshen breath.

By 1500, beets had become an important staple in the Eastern European diet. The “Roman beet,” a red beet with a turnip-like root, was first described as a food plant in Germany in 1558. Its name, along with its rarity at that time in northern Europe and France, indicated that it had been introduced from Italy. Both borsch and Scandinavian beet salads were created in the 16th century.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, there were very few kinds of garden beets, and they weren’t an important part of people’s diets.  were known and they remained insignificant. Up until about 1800 only two kinds, Red and Long Red, were listed by English seed traders.

By the nineteenth century beets were widely consumed across Europe, although their popularity on the Continent grew faster than in the British Isles. English recipes suggested pickling beets. Southern European and Mediterranean recipes used both the root and the greens, using more olive oil based dressings. Northern European recipes recommend pickling as well boiling.

In the United States in 1806 a leading catalog listed only one variety, Red, but in 1828 four kinds were listed. The Bassano variety, still grown today, was common in Italy more than a hundred years ago. The Flat Egyptian, an American production, also cultivated today, was first grown around Boston about 1869. Other varieties grown in America are of more recent introduction.

During World War II, beets were one of the most satisfactory among all the vegetables dehydrated for military or civilian use. In the 1950s, Alexander Ferenczi MD, a Hungarian cancer therapist, began prescribing patients a regime red beets. Patients consumed up to 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of raw or juiced beets per day in addition to their normal diet. Ferenczi worked exclusively with patients who had already undergone chemotherapy and radiation, and who were primarily in the final stage of cancer. According to reports there was clear clinical improvement in every one of the patients.

Colors of garden-beet varieties may range all the way from extremely dark purplish red to bright vermilion and to white. The roots of some varieties, when cut transversely, show distinct light and dark rings, like a target. Beets are commonly grown in home gardens because of their easy culture and quick productiveness. Tens of thousands of acres are also grown annually in the United States for canning.

Beets can:

  1. Lower your risk for heart disease. Beets are a rich source of phytochemical compound, glycine betaine. Betaine is an anti-inflammatory that lowers homocysteine levels in your blood. Homocysteine is a highly toxic metabolite that promotes platelet clotting as well as atherosclerotic plaque formation, which can be harmful to blood vessels. High levels of homocysteine in your blood result in the development of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and peripheral vascular diseases. Raw beets are an excellent source of folate; however, extensive cooking may significantly reduce the level. Folate also helps prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood, and allows your nerves to function properly. Betaxanthins, yellow and orange pigments found in beets, reduce the risk of blood clots by protecting the thin lining of your blood vessels, reduces the inflammation that makes your blood sticky and leads to clots, reduces oxidized LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Beets are also high in potassium, which lowers your heart rate and regulates metabolism inside your cells by countering the detrimental effects of sodium. Beet fiber may provide special health benefits to your cardiovascular system. Beets also provide magnesium, which keeps heart rhythm steady and promotes normal blood pressure.
  2. Prevent cancer. Beet fiber, particularly pectin polysaccharides that significantly contribute to the total fiber content in beets, may also provide special health benefits to your digestive tract (including prevention of colon cancer). Beets get their red color primarily from betalain antioxidant pigments. This deep red pigment is full of cancer-fighting compounds. It has been used to treat leukemia and cancers of the skin, lung, breast, and prostate. Along with very good amounts of the antioxidants iodinemanganese, and vitamin C and  the unique phytochemicals in beets may help fight many types of oxidative stress that can lead to cancer. Betacyanins, red, blue, or purple pigments found in beets, are powerful antioxidants that fight colon cancer and other cancers. Betaxanthins, yellow and orange pigments found in beets, protects many types of cells, especially brain cells, from toxins known to trigger tumors. Oxalic acid, found in beet leaves, is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells. The betalin pigments also support phase 2 detoxification, which may also help fight cancer.
  3. Improve your love lifeOne of the first known uses of beets was by the ancient Romans, who used them medicinally as an aphrodisiac. Beets contain high amounts of boron, which is directly related to the production of human sex hormones.
  4. Protect your body from toxins. The betalin pigments in beets support phase 2 detoxificationBetaxanthins, yellow and orange pigments found in beets, protects many types of cells, especially brain cells, from toxins known to trigger tumors, and protects your liver from toxins.
  5. Improve your mood. Beets are an excellent source of the B vitamin folate. Folate is a B vitamin responsible for mood, the healthy functioning of your nerves, memory retrieval, processing speed, and protecting you from depression. Iodine is critical for the proper functioning of your thyroid gland, which in turn is a mood regulator, and beets are a very good source of iodine. Beets are also packed with betaine, which your brain uses to form SAM-e, a natural antidepressant. And another important nutrient found in beets—uridine—is as effective as prescription antidepressants when it’s combined with omega-3s. Beets also contain trytophan, which relaxes your mind and creates a sense of well-being, similar to chocolate. The magnesium in beets can also lower your blood pressure. 
  6. Indicate low stomach acid or problems with iron metabolism. If you eat beets or drink beet juice, and your urine turns pink, you may have low stomach acid. This discoloration of the urine, to red or pink, after eating beets is called beeturia. It’s caused by the betalain pigments in the beets being excreted instead of being absorbed. If this happens to you, you can learn how to improve nutrient absorption. Beeturia may also indicate problems with iron metabolism. People with iron deficiency, iron excess, or problems with the metabolism of iron are more likely to experience beeturia. If you experience beeturia and also suspect iron deficiency, iron excess, or iron metabolism to be a problem affecting your health, consult with your healthcare provider. 
  7. Provide sustained energy. Beets are low in calories fat and high in fiber and a natural sugar that is released into your system gradually, providing you with sustained energy. They’re high in folate, which supports red blood cell production and helps prevent anemia, and allows your nerves to function properly. They’re also high in manganese, which activates enzymes for using several key nutrients, helps synthesize fatty acids, and facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. 

Nutrients in 100 Grams Fresh Raw Beets

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

folate

109 µg

27%

manganese

0.329 mg

16%

iodine

23 µg

15.9%

fiber

2.8 g

11%

potassium

325 mg

9%

vitamin C

4.9 mg

8%

magnesium

23 mg

6%

phosphorus

40 mg

4%

iron

0.8 mg

4%

copper

0.075 mg

4%

riboflavin

0.057 mg

3.35%

carbohydrates

9.56 g

3%

sodium

78 mg

3%

protein

1.61 g

3%

vitamin B6

0.067 mg

3%

zinc

0.35 mg

2.33%

Calories

43

2.15%

thiamine

0.031 mg

2%

niacin

0.334 mg

1.67%

calcium

16 mg

1.6%

pantothenic acid

0.155 mg

1.55%

vitamin A

33 IU

1%

selenium 0.7 µg

1%

fat

0.17 g

0.26%

vitamin E

0.04 mg

0.13%

vitamin K

0.2 µg

0.025%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

carotene-ß

20 µg

betaine

128.7 mg

lutein-zeaxanthin

0 µg

Choose small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets are usually so tender that they won’t need to be peeled. Avoid beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage. Also avoid beets that are shriveled or flabby, as these are signs that the roots are old, tough, and fibrous. Look for greens that appear fresh, tender, and have a lively green color.

Cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the beet roots, so they do not pull away moisture away from the root. Leave about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from “bleeding.” Do not wash beets before storing. Place them in a bag and wrap the bag tightly around the beets, squeezing out as much of the air from the bag as possible, and place it in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to three weeks. Store the unwashed greens in a separate bag, squeezing out as much of the air as possible. Place them in the refrigerator, 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.

You can serve beets raw or cooked, hot or cold, pickled, roasted, juiced, or pulverized. Shred raw beets for salads. Roasting is the simplest way to prepare cooked beets. Gently wash the beets and wrap them individually, skin on, in aluminum foil as you would a baked potato. Roast them in a 375-degree oven for an hour or so depending on their size (more time if they’re bigger, less if they’re smaller), until a knife glides easily in and out through the foil wrapping. Take the beetroot out of the foil and rub a paper towel against the skin. If properly roasted, the skin will slide right off. Slice with a knife or mandoline, and serve them simply with a tiny pinch of sea salt. Alternatively, you can pair beets with fruits such as oranges, and the beet will have enough sweetness to complement the orange’s acidity. Acidity also preserves the red color, which is why pickling is such a common method of preparation. The intense color of beets is beautiful, but beet dye will bleed into other food and even stain your hands, so wear gloves or handle them with utensils.


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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