Beet: nutrition facts and health benefits

Beet

Beta vulgaris, is the scientific name of garden beet. Other types exist, fodder beet and sugar beet, which are inedible. Different varieties of garden beet are cultivated. All have a root very fleshy, round, elongated, or more often red: the flesh of the beet is very rich in betanine, which is a natural red dye.

History of the beet

In Switzerland and Savoy, red beet is also called “red carrot”. All of our modern beets, including sugar beet, descended from a common ancestor (Beta vulgaris var. maritima), originally cultivated for its leaves. This is also the case of the Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla), which belongs to the same species. The plant comes from the shores of the Mediterranean, where it still grows in the wild and where it disseminated to the East at a very old time ago.

Sugar beet

While the Swiss chard was consumed by our prehistoric ancestors, beet has appeared on the table only at the turn of our era. At least as food is concerned, becauseour ancestors used the root for medicinal purposes. It took until the middle of the 19th century until its use was popularized and market gardeners developed seeds of improved varieties. Then varieties were selected with root red, white and yellow, the latter having long been popular in Europe for its sweet flavor and because its part in marinades. As for the leaves, they have long been prepared like spinach. There are also very large roots (forage beetroot) varieties that have since always served as food for livestock. This can be an explanation, even today, the most well-to-do in Europe display a certain disregard for this yet extremely nutritious vegetable, on the pretext it is only good for cattle.

Beet crossed the Atlantic from the beginning of colonization, maybe on the 3rd trip of Jacques Cartier. It is said during this journey, he brought “all sorts of grains and seeds. In August 1749, botanist Pier Kalm lists in his journal the vegetables he saw in a garden of Quebec City, including red beets “in fairly large quantities. However, it has so few varieties as evidenced by a catalog dating from 1818, offering only a single. On the other hand in 1878, 10 were offered  and in 1932 a dozen varieties. Today, even if a handful of hybrids dominate the market, the old varieties, like the main bearing, the Egyptian, the yellow, the white and the chioggia experiencing a resurgence of popularity among gardeners.

Beets health profile

Beet embellishes all dishes. Its leaves, that can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, are particularly rich in vitamins and minerals.

The benefits of beets

Cancer. A study has shown that betanine consumption, one of the pigments giving beetroot its characteristic color, reduced the appearance of skin, liver and lung cancers among animals. In addition, research indicates the carotenoids of beet leaves may help prevent some cancers, including breast and lung cancers.

Antioxidant power. The beet is one of the vegetables with the best  antioxidant power. Antioxidants are compounds protecting the cells in the body from damage caused by free radicals. They are highly reactive molecules that would be involved in the onset of diseases cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and other chronic diseases.

Eye health. According to several studies, a regular intake of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids contained in the beet leaves, would be associated with a lower risk of macular, cataract and retinitis pigmentosa degeneration. However, further studies of more large-scale are needed to confirm these effects.

Sports performance: some studies show beet juice, rich in nitrates, would have beneficial effects on sports performance by decreasing the oxygen cost during ongoing efforts. A dose of beet juice consumption would also have beneficial effects on cardiovascular performance in altitude. Other studies have shown no effect but it seems that some subjects would significantly better to the beet juice supplementation than others.

What is in the beet?

The beet comes in several varieties: red, yellow, and white. Red beet, the most well-known, has a color so pronounced that it is actually used as dyes in industry. White beet is used for the manufacture of sugar. It is also called ‘sugar beet’.

Betalains

Beet is one of the rare plants that contain the betalain, a family of contributing to his pronounced color pigments. These compounds have proved to be powerful antioxidants in vitro. In humans, a certain proportion of betalains end up into the bloodstream as a result of the consumption of beet juice. The betalains should remain stable in the gastrointestinal tract without significant loss of their antioxidant properties, and their bioavailability is high. The betalains would also possess anti-inflammatory, antitumor properties and protect the liver.

Phenolic compounds

Beetroot contains phenolic compounds, including the flavonoids. These compounds provide beet an antioxidant power, which would remain constant, even after the cooking of the beet. Peel beets contain at least 3 times more phenolic compounds than the flesh. Its leaves are also very rich. A study has shown the content of phenolic compounds from leaf of fresh beet juice is the highest among several plants, beyond that of the juice of spinach and broccoli.

Lutein and zeaxanthin

The leaves of beet (raw or cooked) contain lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidant compounds of the family of the carotenoids. These compounds have beneficial effects on some cancers and eye health. Indeed, they are especially concentrated in the macula and the retina thus protecting the eye of oxydative stress that could cause damage.

Urine colored by the beet?

A few hours after eating beets, it may happen that urine or stool take a reddish tint. This phenomenon arises when (the betalains) beet pigments are absorbed by the intestine instead of being degraded. Several factors can influence this coloration, such as the acidity of the stomach, the speed of digestion, the variety of consumed beet. This characteristic does not represent a health hazard.

Precautions

Vitamin K and blood thinners

Beet leaves contain amounts of vitamin K, among others for the coagulation of the blood. health authorities recommends people who take anticoagulants (Coumadin, Warfilone, Sintrom) to limit their consumption of beets and to ensure a daily intake vitamin K the most stable possible on a daily basis. The portions should not exceed 125 ml (1/2 cup) raw beets, or approximately 60 ml (1/4 cup) of cooked beets.

Selection and conservation

Keep

Refrigerator. 1-2 weeks in a perforated plastic bag.

Freezer. Cook them, cut them into slices or cubes and put them in a bag in the freezer.

Dehydrator. During the second world war, it was discovered that beet would, among all the vegetables, could best be kept after drying. Cut it into thin slices and put it in the dehydrator or in an oven set to the minimum temperature, leaving the door slightly open.

Organic gardening

Beet seed is actually a very hard fruit containing several seeds. If it’s hard to germinate, can crush the fruit with a rolling pin to break their envelope.

The beet does not fear the cold and so can be planted very early in the spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Sow into a ground furnished, deep and rich in organic matter. In southern Quebec, depending on the year, it is sometimes possible to sow as soon as mid-April, with the condition to protect the seedlings with an agrotextile. This allows to keep a little heat in their immediate environment and to limit the problems of damping.

Most gardeners don’t know that one can also start some seedlings in a greenhouse or indoors giving light and moisture. Simply transplant them to the garden when the weather permits. At the time of transplantation, ensuring however that the root is well placed vertically to avoid that it deforms.

For culture in bed, space plants 10 cm to 15 cm in all directions. Rank culture requires the same spacing in the ranks and these should be from 30 cm to 45 cm.

By making successive plantings every 2 or 3 weeks, young beets tender and fresh leaves will be available throughout the season. The last seeding should be done at the latest at the end of July.

Irrigate regularly in order to get the roots of tender and little prone to diseases. Beet requires little nitrogen for growth and relatively little of phosphate. On the other hand, we need to ensure that the soil is well filled in potassium. In addition, beet is particularly sensitive to Boron deficiency. That means providing them when needed.

The miner of the sheet can cause damage in the hot weeks of summer. Protect with an agrotextile or a curtain to mesh.

The plant can tolerate a few frost periods in the fall, but it should be harvested before the very cold. You can extend the season a bit, mulching the plants in October.

Ecology and environment

The populations of wild beets (b. maritima) have a very high genetic variability in terms of resistance to insects, diseases and drought (about 10 times more than the cultivated varieties). An international team of researchers has therefore set up to preserve this diversity in order to transmit these features by crossing and selection, cultivated beet. This is important to limit the use of pesticides and fungicides, chemical and fostering the culture of beet in little or not irrigated lands. Other species of Beta are also discussed for similar characteristics.

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