Thursday, July 14, 2011
Spotlight Food - Beets...
I don’t know what it is about beets, but hating them seems to be universal. I can’t say there are many (if any) people in my life who have a real, true, honest to Goddess love of beets. If people don’t flat out despise them, their attitude generally seems to be "Meh" accompanied by a scrunched up face, and a careless shrug of the shoulders. This is not a criticism mind you, just an observation, people just don’t give much mind to beets. I know, because I was like that once myself. It’s like there’s some ingrained rule in our society that has us automatically disliking them even if we’ve never tried them.
I know that at sometime in my life as an omnivore I must have eaten beets, though I can’t recall for the life of me a time when this might have happened. I don’t remember my mother ever serving beets, and I don’t recall my Oma ever serving (Me at least) beets. Yet I must have eaten them at some point, because when I ate them again as a vegetarian their smell and their flavor were familiar to me. I think the fact that I can’t recall eating them before I began cooking them for myself is somewhat significant. It does go a long way in lending to the theory that a lot of people just don’t know how to cook vegetables properly, which subsequently makes them quite forgettable. Particularly in my opinion, beets.
I am now a firm believer that beets get such a bad wrap because people just don’t know how to cook them. I know they seem a bit intimidating at first, those big bulbous blood red roots that’ll stain your whole kitchen if given half a chance. Combined with that wild tangled mass of greenery shooting out about 2 and a half feet. I get it, they’re strange, and foreign and smell faintly of dirt, better left untouched right? Wrong! Trust me when I tell you that once you get a handle on the infamous beet you will fall in love with their beauty and their magic. At the very least, you’ll no longer be so afraid of them.
Now that I’m Vegan, I have become a total beet convert. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say they’re my all time favorite vegetable, but I definitely have a passion for them that I never thought I’d experience. They are without a doubt one of my favorite vegetables to look at, they’re so beautiful, particularly their color, and something about them seems to hold so much promise. Of course in the beginning, like most people I didn’t know much about how to cook them properly, but since I’ve started experimenting with them I have found an endless amount of delicious ways to eat them, and I hope that once you’ve finished this article you too will feel a bit more confident and encouraged to try them out yourself. Though a good thing to keep in mind is that if you are planning to play around with beets, not only is it important to cook and season them properly but it’s also important to buy good quality beets. Now when I say good quality, I mean you want to get beets with bulbs that are firm not soft, and small to medium sized not extra-extra large. Smaller bulbs will be more tender and sweet, and softness is a sign of age or possibly spoilage. The skin on the beets should also be smooth not wrinkly, and when it comes to the greens their quality is not indicative of the quality of the root. However if you do plan on eating the greens (which you absolutely can, and should do as they have a much higher concentration of nutrients) you will want to choose leaves that are lush, good in color and tender rather then tough. So without further adieu I strongly urge you to forget everything you think you know about beets, and give them a good honest try because not only are they delicious but they’re also fully loaded with antioxidants and other healthful nutrients.
The Beet (Beta vulgaris) is a plant in the Chenopodiaceae family, that has many cultivated varieties, the most common of which is the purple root vegetable known as the beetroot, or the garden beet. The beet has a long and interesting history of cultivation going as far back as the second millennium BC. Though it is not known exactly where the beet was first cultivated it’s thought to have occurred somewhere along the Mediterranean Basin, from where it was later spread to Babylonia in the 8th century, and then as far east as China. Available evidence provided by Aristotle and Theophrastus suggests it was primarily the leaves of the beet that were grown and consumed at the time, while the roots were not as often used. Interestingly beetroot remains have been excavated in the Third dynasty Saqqara Pyramid at Thebes, Egypt and charred beetroot remains were found in the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands. The earliest known written mention of beets comes from the 8th century BC, Mesopotamia.
It’s thought that the various invasions of Rome are responsible for spreading beets into Northern Europe, where they were originally used as animal feed, and only later for human consumption, eventually growing in popularity around the 16th century. However it wasn’t until the 19th century that the value of beets really increased. Once it was discovered that beets were a concentrated source of sugar, and that, that sucrose could be extracted to use in place of tropical sugarcane the first sugar beet factories opened in Germany and Poland. Later when the British restricted access to sugarcane, Napoleon decreed the beet be used as the primary source of sugar which catapulted it’s popularity. It was also around this time that beets were brought to the United States where they flourish today. Today the sugar beet still remains a widely cultivated commercial crop for producing table sugar. The leading producers of beets today are Russia, France, The United States, Poland and Germany.
The leaves and the roots of the beet have been used medicinally to treat a wide variety of ailments for millennia. Ancient Romans used the beetroot as a treatment for constipation and fever. Hippocrates advocated using the beet leaves as a binding for wounds, and in the Middle Ages beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of diseases related to digestion and the blood.
Today studies have proven beets to be a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. Betanin and vulgaxanthin are the two best studied betalains from beets and both have been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification effects. Recent lab studies on human tumor cells have shown that betanin pigments from beets can lessen tumor growth by inhibiting pro-inflammatory enzymes. The tumor cell types used in the study include tumor cells from colon, stomach, nerve, breast, lung, testicular, and prostate tissue.
The fact that beets are rich in antioxidants comes as no surprise, what is surprising however is the kind of antioxidants they contain. Beta-Carotene is the most commonly occurring antioxidant found in vegetables however beets are rich in two other antioxidant carotenoid that aren’t nearly as concentrated in the vegetable kingdom. These two carotenoids are lutein and zeaxanthin, which help to give beets their glorious color. These carotenoids coupled with beets status as an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin C, and the antioxidant manganese provide beets with a unique concentration of phytonutrients that offer antioxidant support in a completely different way then most other antioxidant rich vegetables.
While studies of beets antioxidant properties are still in the early stages, a recent study from Italy has shown that beets combination of lutein and zeaxanthin are important health support molecules, especially with respect to eye health. Particularly that of common age related eye problems involving the macula and the retina. With regards to eye health beets may yet prove to be extraordinarily protective, possibly surpassing other vegetables known to provide superior protection against age-related eye degeneration.
The Betalin pigments in beets have repeatedly been shown to support activity in our bodies 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. The process effectively neutralizes the toxins and makes them sufficiently water soluble so they can be excreted through the urine. Rather then remain in the body causing unwanted cell damage.
Interestingly beet fiber has also become a nutrient of increasing interest in health research. All food fiber is generally lumped together in one large category labeled "dietary Fiber" and most people think one kind of fiber is as good as another. However there is growing evidence to suggest that not all food fibers are created equal. Some food fibers it seems may be more beneficial then others. Beet fiber as well as carrot fiber are two types that may prove to have special health benefits particularly with respect to the health of our digestive tract (including prevention of colon cancer) and our cardiovascular system.
Many of the unique phytonutrients in beets have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds. In particular betanin, isobetanin and vulgaxanthin. One mechanism allowing these phytonutrients to lessen inflamation is their ability to inhibit the activity of cyclo-oxygenase enzymes. These enzymes are widely used by cells to produce messaging molecules that trigger inflamation. Under circumstances where inflamation is needed the production of pro-inflammatory messaging molecules is a good thing. However under other circumstances such as when the body is undergoing chronic, unwanted inflammation, production of these inflammatory messengers make things worse. Several types of heart disease such as atherosclerosis are characterized by chronic unwanted inflamation. For this reason beets have been studied within the context of heart disease leading to some very promising but preliminary results in animal based studies as well as a few small scale human studies.
So there’s a lot of good that can come from this amazing root vegetable, but there are two important things to keep in mind when it comes to beets. First the consumption of beets can cause ones urine to become red or pink. This condition is called beeturia and it’s not harmful in and of itself. About 5-15% of adults in the U.S. experience beeturia following the consumption of beets. However beeturia may be cause for concern in person with iron deficiency, iron excess or known problems of iron metabolism. So if you are concerned that you may have an iron deficiency, or iron absorption problem please consult with your physician. It’s also possible for beet consumption to bring a red or pink color into your bowel movements. While this again, is not considered to be harmful in and of itself, It is important to be confident that the reddening of your stool is in fact due to the consumption of beets and not to the presence of fresh or dried blood. If you are experiencing redness in your stool and you have not consumed beets within 24-72 hours you should contact your physician.
The second thing to consider is that Beets (Mainly the leafy green tops) are among a select few vegetables that contain a measurable amount of oxidates. When oxidates become too concentrated in the bodies fluids, they can crystalize and cause health problems. For this reason individuals with already existing kidney and gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating Beet Greens. However if you don’t suffer from any kidney or gallbladder problems, and you’re not eating pounds upon pounds of beet greens a day, they are an excellent source of vitamins and antioxidants, providing even more nutritional value then the sweeter colorful roots. Beet Greens are definitely worth considering adding into your repertoire.
My hands down favorite way to eat beets is to roast them in the oven at 400, drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with a bit of sea salt, black pepper and maybe a couple of fresh herbs. From there you can do anything with beets. You can eat them hot straight out of the oven like that, or you can slice them up and lightly saute them with some garlic, onions, a dash of cumin and a squeeze of orange juice. You can slice them and eat them either hot or cold in vegetable or grain salads. You can use beets in stews or soups, you can make borscht. You can slice beets thin and grill them in foil as you might potatoes. You can eat beets raw grated onto salads, or rolled into a wrap. You can slice raw beets thinly on a mandolin and eat them in salad, on a sandwich or use them to make raw ravioli or napoleons. You can use a spiral slicer to slice beets into spaghetti like noodle strips to eat as a raw pasta. You can steam beets, you can puree them to use in baking as you might apple sauce. You can put them raw or cooked into a smoothie, you can juice them. You can do just about anything with them. As far as seasonings go, I find they pair best with orange, cumin, garlic, dill, rosemary, oregano, Harissa, Lemon juice, olive oil, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar (not all in the same meal of course!) But honestly don’t be afraid to get creative. Once you give beets a good honest try I’m sure you’ll love them just as much as I do, and remember, just because you might not like something prepared one way doesn’t mean you won’t like it prepared another. Try and try again.
Happy and Healthy eating to you!
*** Note- There are many different types of beets, photographed here I have your average garden variety red beet in the first picture. The second photo is of baby golden beets, the third picture is Chioggia beets, and the fourth picture is of the baby golden beets, the chioggia beets, baby red beets and regular red beets lined up together.***