Love them or hate them, the beet’s nutritional value is as intense as its striking purple color.
Once the Rodney Dangerfield of the garden, beets are finding new respect among nutrition and health advocates. Beets are not just for borscht or pickling any more, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.
The granddaddy of the garden, beets have been in people’s diets for more than 5,000 years. The first beets produced roots that were long and slender. The tender leaves of beets were used as a potherb. Today, growers still find the leaves to be tasty and high in nutritional content.
It was not until the second or third century A.D. that cooking of the beetroot appears in literature. By the 14th century, it had made its way to the dinner plates of the English. At that time, beetroots were shaped more like a parsnip or carrot rather than the sphere-like root of today.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the early growers of beets in America. By the 19th century, seed catalogs featured four varieties of beets. Today, growers find colorful varieties in red, yellow, white and concentric “candy stripe,” Trinklein said.
During the 1700s, a German scientist discovered that beet sugar was indistinguishable from cane sugar. Beet became a sugar for those who could not afford tropical sugars. Improved sucrose content of the beet led to the establishment of the sugar beet industry. Sugar beets now account for more than 50 percent of the sugar produced annually in the U.S.
Beets have a variety of other uses as well. In ancient times, beet earned a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Even today, some believe those who eat from the same beet will fall in love. In the 1600s, beet juice was used as a hair dye. In Australia, fast-food restaurants top their hamburgers with a slice of beetroot and traditional condiments.
Beet’s earthy taste and smell come from a compound called geosmin. The human nose can detect geosmin when only five parts per trillion are present. Geosmin is the same compound that gives some fish such as carp an earthy or “muddy” flavor.
Beets are easy to grow. Plant this cool-season biennial early in the spring. Establish a good, loose seedbed. Plant seeds 3⁄4 inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows that are spaced 12-18 inches apart. Each beet “seed” is an entire opened ovary and contains several seeds. Therefore, beets require thinning after seedlings emerge. They require little fertilization and resist most insects.
Beets are members of the pigweed family. They produce an enlarged storage root during their first season of growth. They grow flowers and set seeds during the second season of growth. If temperatures drop to less than 45 degrees for three weeks or more, flower stalks may develop. If this happens, remove the stalk.
Harvest beets when they are an inch or more in diameter. The best flavor and root color come from “new” beets. Beets that mature during warm weather produce less sugar and pale in comparison to those grown in cooler conditions.
Beet greens can be harvested sparingly during the growing season and eaten raw or cooked. Trinklein said it is best to remove only a few older, mature leaves. Leave the rest to allow the beetroot to grow.
Today, beets receive high marks from nutritionists. One cup of beets is only 75 calories. Beets are high in fiber and an excellent source of folate and vitamins A and K. They contain manganese, copper and potassium. Betalains in beets contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying ingredients. More recently, researchers found that beets contain dietary nitrates. These nitrates convert to nitric oxide that relaxes and dilates blood vessels. The result is a reduction in systolic blood pressure and improvement of blood flow.
Like most root crops, beets store well. Remove the tops and store undamaged beets in above-freezing temperatures with a humidity range of 95-100 percent for up to six months.