by Tammera J. Karr, PhD
Fall and early winter are the time of year root crops like carrots, turnips and beets come into their own. I never have thought much about beets… the only thing I found appealing about them was their exquisite crimson red color. This year however I decided to look at this root food a little closer and here is some of what I found.
Beets, are native to the Mediterranean. Although the leaves have been eaten since before written history, the beet root was generally used medicinally and did not become a popular food until French chefs recognized their potential in the 1800′s.
Beet powder is used as a coloring agent for many foods. Some frozen pizzas use beet powder to color the tomato sauce, as well as jams, jellies, juices and soups. It is estimated that about two-thirds of commercial beet crops end up canned.
There are four main beet types: the garden beet, whose root and leaves are eaten as a vegetable; the sugar beet; the mangel-wurzel, which is stored and used for livestock feed; and Swiss chard, which is cultivated for its edible leaves. About thirty percent of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets.
Beet remains have been excavated in the Third dynasty Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, and four charred beet fruits were found in the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands. The earliest known written mention of the beet comes from eighth century B.C.E. Mesopotamia, Roman and Jewish literary sources indicate domestication by 1st century B.C.E., domestic beet was represented in the Mediterranean basin by leafy forms (chard) and very probably also by beetroot cultivars.
The Romans used beetroot as a treatment for fevers and constipation, and considered beetroot juice to be an aphrodisiac. Beets are a rich source of the mineral boron, which plays an important role in the production of human sex hormones. Apicius in De re coquinaria, gives five recipes for soups to be given as a laxative, three of which feature the root of beet. Hippocrates advocated the use of beet leaves as binding for wounds. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for illnesses relating to digestion and the blood.
In 1747, German chemist Andreas Marggraf identified sucrose in beet root and eventually his student Franz Achard built a sugar beet processing factory at Cunern in Silesia. This plant operated from 1801 until it was destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon, banned sugar imports in 1813. This cut off supplies of sugar produced from sugar cane to much of Europe. The beet sugar industry emerged and thrived.
Today the beetroot is championed as a universal panacea. One of the most controversial examples is the official position of the South African Health Minister on the treatment of AIDS. Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Health Minister under Thabo Mbeki, had been nicknamed “Dr Beetroot” for promoting beets and other vegetables over antiretroviral AIDS medicines, which she considers toxic.
Beets contain vitamin C, while the leaves are an excellent source of vitamin A. Beets are among the sweetest of vegetables, containing more sugar than carrots or sweet corn. The content of sugar in garden beet is 10 percent, in the sugar beet it is typically 15 to 20 percent.
Another nutrient in beets is betaine, named after its discovery in sugar beets in the nineteenth century. This nutrient is benificial for the cardiovascular system. Betaine supplements, manufactured as a byproduct of sugar beet processing, are prescribed to lower potentially toxic levels of homocysteine, a naturally occurring amino acid that can be harmful to blood vessels thereby contributing to the development of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
Blood Pressure: An American Heart Association study indicates that drinking 500 milliliters of beet juice can measurably reduce blood pressure within one hour after drinking it. This effect is measurable for 24 hours.
Cancer: In Europe, beets are commonly used to treat cancer. They contain an antioxidant, betacyanin, which both inhibits tumor growth and prevents the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines.
Digestion: Beet root is high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which aid in the proper function of the digestive system. Because of the high levels of fiber, beet root is used as a treatment for constipation.
An average sized cup (225.8 grams) of sliced beets will contain:
31 Calories – Carbohydrate 8.5 g
Dietary fiber 1.5 g
Folate 53.2 µg
Phosphorus 32 mg – Potassium 259 mg
Protein 1.5 g
èBeets, like kale, spinach, carrots, and turnips, can be a source of nitrates and should not be fed to infants under 6 months of age. All parts of the beet plant contain oxalic acid. Beet greens and Swiss chard are both considered high oxalate foods which have been implicated on the formation of kidney stones.
The color of red beetroot is due to a purple pigment betacyanin and a yellow pigment betaxanthin, known collectively as betalins. Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will “leak” when cut, heated, or when in contact with air or sunlight. Leaving the skin on when cooking, will maintain the integrity of the cells and minimize leakage. Betacyanin in beetroot may cause red urine and feces in some people who are unable to break it down.
So all in all we find natural foods like beets are not only loaded with nutrients and provide health benefits in the forms of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – just don’t let the government know or they will ban them as unlicensed drugs. I don’t encourage diabetics to consume beets because of the high sugar content. But if you love this food, eat it in moderation with lots of other healthy foods. Then get up and go for a walk to burn the sugar off.
 Beet (Beetroot) History – Beets as a medicine and food coloring – By Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, About.com Guide