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.
How to Select and Store
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.
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.
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.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
Tips for Preparing Beets
Rinse gently under cold running water, taking care not to tear the skin, which helps keep the health-promoting pigments inside.
Since beet juice can stain your skin, wearing kitchen gloves is a good idea when handling beets. If your hands become stained during the cleaning and cooking process, simply rub some lemon juice on them to remove the stain.
Cut beets into quarters leaving 2 inches of tap root and 1 inch of stem on the beets.
The Healthiest Way of Cooking Beets
Cook beets lightly. Studies show beets’ concentration of phytonutrients, such as betalains, is diminished by heat.
We recommend healthy steaming beets for 15 minutes to maximize their nutrition and flavor. Fill the bottom of the steamer with 2 inches of water and bring to a rapid boil Add beets, cover, and steam for 15 minutes. Beets are cooked when you can easily insert a fork or the tip or knife into the beet.
Peel beets by setting them on a cutting board and rubbing the skin off with a paper towel. Wearing kitchen gloves will help prevent your hands from becoming stained.
Transfer to a bowl and serve with our Mediterranean Dressing and your favorite optional ingredients. For details see 15-Minute Beets.
Beets’ color can be modified during cooking. Adding an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice or vinegar will brighten the color while an alkaline substance such as baking soda will often cause them to turn a deeper purple. Salt will blunt beets’ color, so add only at the end of cooking if needed.
How to Enjoy
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
Simply grate raw beets for a delicious and colorful addition to salads or decorative garnish for soups.
Healthy Boil beet greens for 1 minute for a great tasting side dish, which is very similar to Swiss chard.
Marinate steamed beets in fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs.
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 and Oxalates
Beets (notably beet greens) are among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalates, naturally occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating beet greens. Laboratory studies have shown that oxalates may also interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. Yet, in every peer-reviewed research study we’ve seen, the ability of oxalates to lower calcium absorption is relatively small and definitely does not outweigh the ability of oxalate-containing foods to contribute calcium to the meal plan. If your digestive tract is healthy, and you do a good job of chewing and relaxing while you enjoy your meals, you will get significant benefits—including absorption of calcium—from calcium-rich foods plant foods that also contain oxalic acid. Ordinarily, a healthcare practitioner would not discourage a person focused on ensuring that they are meeting their calcium requirements from eating these nutrient-rich foods because of their oxalate content. For more on this subject, please see “Can you tell me what oxalates are and in which foods they can be found?”
Beets are unique in their rich combination of betalain pigments. Both betacyanins (red-violet pigments) and betaxanthins (yellow pigments) can be found in beets. Betanin and vulgaxanthin are betalains that have gotten special attention in beet research.
Beets are also an excellent source of hearth-healthy folate and a very good source of the antioxidants manganese and vitamin C as well as heart-healthy potassium. Beets are a good source of digestive-supportive dietary fiber, free radical scavenging copper, bone-healthy magnesium, and energy-producing iron and phosphorus.
In-Depth Nutritional Profile
In addition to the nutrients highlighted in our ratings chart, an in-depth nutritional profile for Beets is also available. This profile includes information on a full array of nutrients, including carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids and more.
Introduction to Food Rating System Chart
In order to better help you identify foods that feature a high concentration of nutrients for the calories they contain, we created a Food Rating System. This system allows us to highlight the foods that are especially rich in particular nutrients. The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good, or good source (below the chart you will find a table that explains these qualifications). If a nutrient is not listed in the chart, it does not necessarily mean that the food doesn’t contain it. It simply means that the nutrient is not provided in a sufficient amount or concentration to meet our rating criteria. (To view this food’s in-depth nutritional profile that includes values for dozens of nutrients – not just the ones rated as excellent, very good, or good – please use the link below the chart.) To read this chart accurately, you’ll need to glance up in the top left corner where you will find the name of the food and the serving size we used to calculate the food’s nutrient composition. This serving size will tell you how much of the food you need to eat to obtain the amount of nutrients found in the chart. Now, returning to the chart itself, you can look next to the nutrient name in order to find the nutrient amount it offers, the percent Daily Value (DV%) that this amount represents, the nutrient density that we calculated for this food and nutrient, and the rating we established in our rating system. For most of our nutrient ratings, we adopted the government standards for food labeling that are found in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Reference Values for Nutrition Labeling.” Read more background information and details of our rating system.
Courtesy of The World’s Healthiest Foods.