Foods belonging to the chenopod family — including beets, chard, spinach and quinoa — continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. The red and yellow betalain pigments found in this food family, their unique epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids, and the special connection between their overall phytonutrients and our nervous system health (including our specialized nervous system organs like the eye) point to the chenopod family of foods as unique in their health value. While we have yet to see large-scale human studies that point to a recommended minimum intake level for foods from this botanical family, we have seen data on chenopod phytonutrients, and based on this data, we recommend that you include foods from the chenopod family in your diet 1-2 times per week. In the case of a root food like beetroot, we recommend a serving size of at least one-half whole medium beet, and even more beneficial, at least 1 whole medium beet so that you can also benefit from their nutrient-rich greens.
If long cooking times deter you from cooking beets, our Healthiest Way of Cooking beets will help you prepare them in just 15 minutes. Cut medium beets into quarters without removing the skin. Steam and serve as a great vegetable side dish or as a wonderful addition to your favorite salad.
It is often difficult to believe how the hardy, crunchy, often rough-looking exterior of raw beets can be transformed into something wonderfully soft and buttery once they are cooked. See Healthiest Way of Cooking Beets in the How to Enjoy section below.
Remember all those legendary Russian centenarians? Beets, frequently consumed either pickled or in borscht, the traditional Russian soup, may be one reason behind their long and healthy lives. These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer.
The pigments that give beets their rich colors are called betalains. There are two basic types of betalains: betacyanins and betaxanthins. Betacyanins are pigments are red-violet in color. Betanin is the best studied of the betacyanins. Betaxanthins are yellowish in color. In light or dark red, crimson, or purple colored beets, betacyanins are the dominant pigments. In yellow beets, betaxanthins predominate, and particularly the betaxanthin called vulgaxanthin. All betalains come from the same original molecule (betalamic acid). The addition of amino acids or amino acid derivatives to betalamic acid is what determines the specific type of pigment that gets produced. The betalain pigments in beets are water-soluble, and as pigments they are somewhat unusual due to their nitrogen content. Many of the betalains function both as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules. At the same time, they themselves are also very vulnerable to oxidation (change in structure due to interaction with oxygen). In addition to beets, rhubarb, chard, amaranth, prickly pear cactus, and Nopal cactus are examples of foods that contain betalains.
It's interesting to note that humans appear to vary greatly in their response to dietary betalains. In the United States, only 10-15% of adults are estimated to be "betalain responders." A betalain responder is a person who has the capacity to absorb and metabolize enough betalains from beet (and other foods) to gain full antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and Phase 2 triggering benefits. (Phase 2 is the second step in our cellular detoxification process).
What's most striking about beets is not the fact that they are rich in antioxidants; what's striking is the unusual mix of antioxidants that they contain. We're used to thinking about vegetables as rich in antioxidant carotenoids, and in particular, beta-carotene; among all well-studied carotenoids, none is more commonly occurring in vegetables than beta-carotene.
When it comes to antioxidant phytonutrients that give most red vegetables their distinct color, we've become accustomed to thinking about anthocyanins. (Red cabbage, for example, gets it wonderful red color primarily from anthocyanins.) Beets demonstrate their antioxidant uniqueness by getting their red color primarily from betalain antioxidant pigments (and not primarily from anthocyanins). Coupled with their status as a very good source of the antioxidant manganese and a good source of the antioxidant vitamin C, the unique phytonutrients in beets provide antioxidant support in a different way than other antioxidant-rich vegetables. While research is largely in the early stage with respect to beet antioxidants and their special benefits for eye health and overall nerve tissue health, we expect to see study results showing these special benefits and recognizing beets as a standout vegetable in this area of antioxidant support.
Many of the unique phytonutrients present in beets have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds. In particular, this anti-inflammatory activity has been demonstrated for betanin, isobetanin, and vulgaxanthin. One mechanism allowing these phytonutrients to lessen inflammation is their ability to inhibit the activity of cyclo-oxygenase enzymes (including both COX-1 and COX-2). The COX enzymes are widely used by cells to produce messaging molecules that trigger inflammation. Under most circumstances, when inflammation is needed, this production of pro-inflammatory messaging molecules is a good thing. However, under other circumstances, when the body is undergoing chronic, unwanted inflammation, production of these inflammatory messengers can make things worse. Several types of heart disease—including atherosclerosis—are characterized by chronic unwanted inflammation. For this reason, beets have been studied within the context of heart disease, and there are some encouraging although very preliminary results in this area involving animal studies and a few very small scale human studies. Type 2 diabetes—another health problem associated with chronic, unwanted inflammation—is also an area of interest in this regard, with research findings at a very preliminary stage.
In addition to their unusual betalain and carotenoid phytonutrients, however, beets are also an unusual source of betaine. Betaine is a key body nutrient made from the B-complex vitamin, choline. (Specifically, betaine is simply choline to which three methyl groups have been attached.) In and of itself, choline is a key vitamin for helping regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system since adequate choline is important for preventing unwanted build-up of homocysteine. (Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with unwanted inflammation and risk of cardiovascular problems like atherosclerosis.) But betaine may be even more important in regulation of our inflammatory status as its presence in our diet has been associated with lower levels of several inflammatory markers, including C reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha. As a group, the anti-inflammatory molecules found in beets may eventually be shown to provide cardiovascular benefits in large-scale human studies, as well as anti-inflammatory benefits for other body systems.
The betalin pigments present in beets have repeatedly been shown to support activity in our body's Phase 2 detoxification process. Phase 2 is the metabolic step that our cells use to hook activated, unwanted toxic substances up with small nutrient groups. This "hook up" process effectively neutralizes the toxins and makes them sufficiently water-soluble for excretion in the urine. One critical "hook up" process during Phase 2 involves an enzyme family called the glutathione-S-transferase family (GSTs). GSTs hook toxins up with glutathione for neutralization and excretion from the body. The betalains found in beet have been shown to trigger GST activity, and to aid in the elimination of toxins that require glutathione for excretion. If you are a person who thinks about exposure to toxins and wants to give your body as much detox support as possible, beets are a food that belongs in your diet.
It's important to note two other areas of potential health benefits associated with beets: anti-cancer benefits and fiber-related benefits. The combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules in beets makes this food a highly-likely candidate for risk reduction of many cancer types. Lab studies on human tumor cells have confirmed this possibility for colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate and testicular cancers. Eventually, we expect to see large-scale human studies that show the risk-reducing effect of dietary beet intake for many of these cancer types.
Beet fiber has also been a nutrient of increasing interest in health research. While many people tend to lump all food fiber into one single category called "dietary fiber," there is evidence to suggest that all dietary fiber is not the same. Beet fiber (along with carrot fiber) are two specific types of food fiber that may provide special health benefits, particularly with respect to health of our digestive tract (including prevention of colon cancer) and our cardiovascular system. Some beet fiber benefits may be due to the pectin polysaccharides that significantly contribute to the total fiber content.
Both beets and Swiss chard are different varieties within the same plant family (Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae) and their edible leaves share a resemblance in both taste and texture. Attached to the beet's green leaves is a round or oblong root, the part conjured up in most people's minds by the word "beet." Although typically a beautiful reddish-purple hue, beets also come in varieties that feature white, golden/yellow or even rainbow color roots. No matter what their color, however, beet roots aren't as hardy as they look; the smallest bruise or puncture will cause red beets' red-purple pigments (which contain a variety of phytonutrients including betalains and anthocyanins) to bleed, especially during cooking. Betalain pigments in beets are highly-water soluble, and they are also temperature sensitive. For both of these reasons, it is important to treat beets as a delicate food, even though they might seem "rock solid" and difficult to damage.
Beets' sweet taste reflects their high sugar content, which makes beets an important source for the production of refined sugar (yet, the beets that are used for sugar consumption are of a different type than the beets that you purchase in the store). Raw beet roots have a crunchy texture that turns soft and buttery when they are cooked. Beet leaves have a lively, bitter taste similar to chard. The main ingredient in the traditional eastern European soup, borscht, beets are delicious eaten raw, but are more typically cooked or pickled.
The greens attached to the beet roots are delicious and can be prepared like spinach or Swiss chard. They are incredibly rich in nutrients, concentrated in vitamins and minerals as well as carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein/zeaxanthin.
While beets are available throughout the year, their season runs from June through October when the youngest, most tender beets are easiest to find.
The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa and grew wild along Asian and European seashores. In these earlier times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots. The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets to use their roots as food. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe where they were first used for animal fodder and later for human consumption, becoming more popular in the 16th century.
Beets' value grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar, and the first sugar factory was built in Poland. When access to sugar cane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar, catalyzing its popularity. Around this time, beets were also first brought to the United States, where they now flourish. Today the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, the Russian Federation, France, Poland, France and Germany.
Choose small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won't be needed after they are cooked.
Avoid beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage. Shriveled or flabby should also be avoided as these are signs that the roots are aged, tough and fibrous.
While the quality of the greens does not reflect that of the roots, if you are going to consume this very nutritious part of the plant, look for greens that appear fresh, tender, and have a lively green color.
At WHFoods, we encourage the purchase of certified organically grown foods, and beets are no exception. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including beets. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells beets but has not applied for formal organic certification either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) However, if you are shopping in a large supermarket, your most reliable source of organically grown beets is very likely to be beets that display the USDA organic logo.
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 in a plastic bag and wrap the bag tightly around the beets, squeezing out as much of the air from the bag as possible, and place in refrigerator where they will keep for up to 3 weeks. Loss of some nutrients in beets—for example, its vitamin C content—is likely to be slowed down through refrigeration.
Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag squeezing out as much of the air as possible. Place in 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.
If you'd like even more recipes and ways to prepare beets the Nutrient-Rich Way, you may want to explore The World's Healthiest Foods book.
Consumption of beets can cause urine to become red or pink in color. This condition"called beeturia"is not considered harmful. About 5-15% of U.S. adults are estimated to experience beeturia following consumption of beets in everyday amounts. One area in which beeturia may be a potential concern involves problems with iron metabolism. Persons with iron deficiency, iron excess, or known 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, we recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider to determine your best dietary and health steps.
It's possible for beet consumption to bring a red color into your bowel movements as well, although this outcome tends to be more common in children than adults. Once again, the production of a reddish color in the stool due to beets is not considered harmful. It's important, however, to be confident that the reddening of the stool is caused by the pigments found in beets and not by the presence of fresh or dried blood. If you experience reddening of the stool and have not recently (with the past 24-48 hours) consumed beets, we recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider to determine the reason for this change in your stool color.
Beets have consistently been determined to have high oxalate content. Oxalates are naturally occurring organic acids found in a wide variety of foods, and in the case of certain medical conditions, they must be greatly restricted in a meal plan to prevent over-accumulation inside the body. Our comprehensive article about oxalates will provide you with practical and detailed information about these organic acids, food, and health.
Beets, sliced, cooked
|manganese||0.55 mg||28||6.6||very good|
|potassium||518.50 mg||15||3.6||very good|
|copper||0.13 mg||14||3.5||very good|
|vitamin C||6.12 mg||8||2.0||good|
|vitamin B6||0.11 mg||6||1.6||good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%