February 2020 Issue
Beets — The History, Myriad Uses, and Health Benefits of These Beloved Roots
By Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
Vol. 22, No. 2, P. 26
You may think of the beet as a humble root vegetable, but this ruby red veggie has an extensive history, diversity, and culinary possibility hidden beneath the surface. Discover the origins of the beet we know today, the many shades of color and varieties it comes in, the powerful health benefits associated with it, and the many ways it can be used and enjoyed in the kitchen.
Despite their array of culinary uses in today’s kitchens, beets weren’t always widely used or consumed. The earliest record of beets’ existence can be traced back to the Egyptians, where beet remains were discovered in Thebes, Egypt. The earliest written mention of the beet is from 8th century BC, when it was described as being similar to the radish.1
While it remains unknown whether beets were part of the Egyptian diet, it’s believed that consuming beets originated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Here they were cultivated not for their bulbous root but for their leafy green tops, which were consumed in a similar fashion to Swiss chard.2,3 Beet greens were so well liked that ancient Romans and Greeks developed a method to grow beets in the hot summer months, outside of the normal growing season in the spring and fall.
The first account of the root being consumed can be traced back to the early 1500s, either in Germany or Italy. Early beetroot plants more closely resembled a carrot or parsnip than the bulbous shape we recognize today.
Beets weren’t always a deep red color, either. Beets in Greek and Roman times were either black or white, as opposed to the red, white, and yellow varieties available today.2 Worldwide consumption of beets didn’t occur until they were recognized as being one of the few vegetables that grew well in the winter. Soon, they became a staple food in northeastern Europe.3
In addition to the culinary uses of the greens and root, beets were used to create a form of sugar. In 1747, a Berlin chemist named Andreas Sigismund Marggraf discovered a way to create sucrose from the humble beet. It wasn’t until Marggraf’s student, Franz Achard, perfected the method for extracting sugar from beets that the rise in products such as beet beer, molasses, and other beet sugar–containing foods began to flood the market.
This sweet alternative rose in popularity even more when Napoleon banned all sugar imports in 1813. This cut off supplies of both sugar and products made with sugar cane, leaving a wide open market for beet sugar.1,3 To this day, beets account for about 20% to 30% of the world’s sugar production.1,3,4
Both the roots and leaves of beets have a history of medicinal uses as well. The Romans used beets as a treatment for a number of ailments, including constipation and fevers, and in the Middle Ages for illnesses involving digestion and blood.1
Beets first made their way to the United States with European immigrants in the early 19th century. By then, the beet had evolved into its modern-day bulbous shape and deep red hue. With their earthy flavor and vibrant color, beets now are available, used, and enjoyed worldwide.
The scientific name for the common beetroot plant is Beta vulgaris, which stems from the Latin words for “beet” and “common.” It goes by many other names such as the European sugar beet, red garden beet, Harvard beet, blood turnip, mangelwurzel, mangel, spinach beet, and, most commonly, simply a beet. The beetroot plant is an ancestor of the wild sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima), which most likely originates from the Mediterranean.4
Beta vulgaris encompasses four varieties of plants: Swiss chard, garden beets (simply, beets), mangelwurzel, and sugar beets. Swiss chard is cultivated solely for its edible leaves, while garden beets are grown for their roots and leaves. Mangelwurzel is most often fed to livestock, while the thick roots of sugar beets are used to make sugar.
In addition to the four main varieties found within the Beta vulgaris species, there are also many varieties of the common beet. These include the white Albina Vereduna, the yellow-fleshed Burpee’s Golden, the Italian Chioggia with concentric red and white rings, and multiple varieties of the most commonly known red beet.1
Beets are considered a root vegetable, grown in a similar fashion to carrots, parsnips, and radishes. The bulbous root is attached to purple-green, variegated leaves by long stems that extend above the ground. Beets, which grow best in moist, well-drained soil in full sunlight, can grow upwards of 8 to 12 inches in height.5
Most often, beets require 50 to 70 days from planting to harvest, but the greens can be trimmed and used before the root mature.5 Seeds of the beetroot plant can be planted in early spring and harvested through October. They do well when planted next to kohlrabi, bush beans, and onions, and have no major troubling insects that affect their growth. However, beetroot plants are sensitive to boron deficiency, which can lead to an undesirable growth called blackspot. Much like other root vegetables, beets are hardy and have a long shelf life if stored in a cool, dark place.2
Beet Nutrition and Health Benefits
A 1-cup serving of cooked beets contains roughly 75 kcal, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, and less than 1 g fat. A good source of potassium and folate, beets contain other essential vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins.6
The leafy green tops, often referred to as beet greens, come with a unique nutrient profile. A 1-cup serving of cooked beet greens (with no added fat or seasoning) contains 39 kcal, 4 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, and less than 1 g fat. Beet greens also are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K.7
Aside from macro- and micronutrients, beets are full of phytochemicals, such as phytosterols, betalains such as betanin, nitrates and nitrites, and carotenoids, many of which show potential for boosting cardiovascular health and athletic performance.8
The common beet holds the potential for unique and specific health benefits, mostly associated with the phytochemicals and inorganic compounds found within them. These include phytosterols, betanin, and inorganic nitrates.
Phytosterols, also known as plant sterols, are cholesterol-like compounds found in plant foods such as beets, Brussels sprouts, almonds, and kidney beans. Some studies have shown that regularly consuming foods containing phytosterols can help lower blood cholesterol levels by slowing the absorption of dietary cholesterol and the production of cholesterol in the liver.9 One cup of raw beets contains about 45 mg of naturally occurring phytosterols.8
Betanin not only helps to give beets their blood red color but also has a unique set of potential health benefits. Research has suggested that betanin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can help prevent LDL oxidation and DNA damage.10
While many consumers have negative perceptions of nitrates and nitrites in food, the truth is that 80% of dietary nitrates come from vegetables, with beets being an especially rich source. When inorganic nitrites are consumed through diet, they’re converted to nitric oxide in the body, which is thought to contribute to the potential blood pressure–reducing effects of dietary patterns high in plant foods such as the DASH diet.11
Inorganic nitrates also have been linked to enhancing exercise performance. Preliminary studies have shown that consumption of beetroot juice helped participants perform exercise faster with a lower perceived energy exertion, as well as improve overall physical performance. Positive results of nitrate supplementation are especially prevalent in constant, high-intensity exercise such as running and cycling, but benefits also have been seen in walking and knee extension exercises.12,13
Cooking With Beets
Beets have a myriad of culinary possibilities. They tend to have a sweet, yet earthy, flavor, often attributed to the chemical compound geosmin. Research is inconclusive as to whether the beets themselves produce this compound or if it comes from the microbes found in soil.1
Beets can be used and enjoyed in several ways, including raw, boiled, steamed, roasted, and pickled.
Raw beets have a very firm texture and therefore aren’t often consumed. Steaming or boiling beets helps to soften the flesh, but preparing beets from their raw form can be a messy ordeal. For clients who don’t want to deal with the mess, beets are available canned whole or sliced.
One of the most common traditional ways to enjoy boiled beets is in the Russian soup borscht. This beet-based soup, which has been around since the 14th century, often is made with a mixture of beets, onion, potatoes, and carrots, boiled and blended until smooth, flavored with fresh dill, and topped with a dollop of fresh sour cream.2
Roasting beets either whole or cubed helps to caramelize the natural sugars within the vegetable, giving them a more intense, sweeter flavor. Golden beets tend to be sweeter and less bitter than red beets. Roasted beets can be enjoyed on their own, as a salad topper, or mixed with other root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and potatoes for a hash.
Pickling beets is a popular and long-standing way of preparing this vegetable. Cooked beets are soaked in a brine mixture made of sugar, salt, vinegar, water, and spices. This pickling process not only adds a pleasant flavor, but the vinegar mixture also is thought to help the beets retain their vibrant color.
Aside from the root, beet greens can be cooked and enjoyed in a similar fashion to other leafy green vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, and spinach. While beet greens can be consumed raw, they’re especially tasty steamed or sautéed with garlic and oil. Surprisingly, beet greens aren’t as bitter as other greens, but rather lend a mild, sweet flavor, especially when cooked.
— Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications. She’s the author of 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More. You can read more of her articles and find her recipes at JessicaLevinson.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @jlevinsonrd.
1. Beet. New World Encyclopedia website. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Beet. Updated January 14, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2019.
2. Schick YK; Hamilton College. Beets. https://academics.hamilton.edu/foodforthought/Our_Research_files/beet.pdf. Published 2008. Accessed December 5, 2019.
3. Discover the history of beets. PBS website. https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-beets/. Published October 8, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2019.
4. Beta vulgaris. Missouri Botanical Garden website. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=a668. Accessed December 5, 2019.
5. Iannotti M. Beets plant profile. The Spruce website. https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-beets-in-the-home-garden-1403456. Updated October 2, 2019. Accessed December 5, 2019.
6. Beets, cooked, boiled, drained. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169146/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed December 5, 2019.
7. Beet greens, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170376/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed December 5, 2019.
8. Beets. Canadian Academy of Sports Nutrition website. https://www.caasn.com/beets.html. Accessed December 5, 2019.
9. Phytosterols. Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, GI Society website. https://badgut.org/information-centre/health-nutrition/phytosterols/. Accessed December 5, 2019.
10. Esatbeyoglu T, Wagner AE, Schini-Kerth VB, Rimbach G. Betanin — a food colorant with biological activity. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2015;59(1):36-47.
11. Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(1):1-10.
12. Murphy M, Eliot K, Heuertz RM, Weiss E. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(4):548-552.
13. Jones AM, Vanhatalo A, Bailey SJ. Influence of dietary nitrate supplementation on exercise tolerance and performance. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;75:27-40.