Article courtesy of Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor

I write about a lot of powerhouse vegetables, and the beet ranks among the top of the list, but it also has some unique properties unlike other top-of-the-list veggies. While most people may be most familiar with the root, the entire plant is tasty and very nutritious. Many people also think of beets coming only in a can. If you are one of those people, it is time to start thinking out of the can, and experience fresh beets which are much tastier, versatile and nutritious.

Beets are in the Chenopodiaceae family of plants which also include chards and spinach beets. It has a very long history dating back to 2000 BC, originating along the Mediterranean. They are available year round but their peak season runs from June to October. The leading commercial producers are the US, Russia, France, Poland and Germany.

All “powerhouse” vegetables contain phytonutrients, substances in the plant that promote health, mainly in terms of being an anti-oxidant, or substances that fight cancer and disease causing processes in our body. That substance is usually beta-carotene, a carotenoid, which we associate with colorful vegetables. However, the major carotenoid in beets is not beta-carotene but betalains. In early research, betalains have shown superior health benefits over other carotenoids in terms of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers of the colon, stomach, lung, breast and prostate. Betalains are quickly depleted from foods the longer they are cooked, so use the least amount of time possible.

The fiber in beets (along with carrots) differs from other food fibers by being especially beneficial to digestive health particularly in preventing colon cancer.

Buying & storing: Choose beets that are small to medium with smooth, firm skin, deep in color. Avoid shriveled or soft skin beets. If you are buying beets with the greens attached, the condition of the greens does not indicate that of the root, but if you plan to eat the greens, choose ones that appear fresh with a lively green color. Do not wash beets until ready to use. Store dry beets in a plastic bag, tightly wrapped around the beets with most of the air squeezed out. They will keep up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. The greens should also not be washed until ready to use and can be steamed or sautéed within a day or two and can be eaten then or frozen.

Beet and Citrus Salad

Preparing: Beets can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled or roasted. Remember to cook them the least amount of time needed to get them just fork tender to preserve the most nutritional value. Try them raw by grating a beet over a green or fruit salad (try Beet Salad with Oranges, Apples) or over soup. My favorite way to eat beets is to roast them whole, either in the oven or on the grill. The flavor and sweetness is intensified the most of any other cooking method. They will last about 1-2 weeks in a covered container in the refrigerator or they freeze really well. You can wrap them individually in plastic wrap and then place all in a freezer zip lock bag. Then you can remove however many you want, let thaw and use in salads or heat them. Once cooked, the skins will come off easily with a paper towel. If your hands become stained from the beet juice, lemon juice will remove the stain.

Eating beets can cause urine to become red or pink in color in about 5-15% of adults and it is called beeturia. It is not considered harmful but there is an association between beeturia and iron metabolism. Some people will have this occur if they are iron deficiency, have iron excess or other iron metabolism issue and if this happens to you, you might want to have that checked out. More common is beet consumption causing a red color to your bowel movements. This will occur within 24-48 hours after eating the beets. If you see a red pigment to your bowel movements after this period, you should see a healthcare provider.

Nutrition: Per 1 cup of raw beets – Calories: 58, Daily percentage of folate: 37%, manganese 22%, fiber 15%, and potassium 13%.

Before you toss out those green beet tops, keep in mind that they contain significantly more iron, Vitamin A, potassium and calcium than the roots.  So saute or juice them up!

Beets ready to be roasted.

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