The Many Virtues of the Humble Beet

Like most root vegetables, the beet is unlikely to win many popularity contests. No, it will never taste like chocolate. But it offers a host of benefits for the health-conscious and the foodie alike.

Beat the Blues

The nutrient responsible for the beetroot’s lovely red coloring is betaine. Betaine does more than provide visual appeal. When ingested, it can increase the body’s production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep, libido and sexual function. Insufficient supplies of that so-called “feel-good” hormone are thought to play a role in clinical depression, which is why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the most widely prescribed antidepressants.

Beat Back Disease

Betaine benefits more than mental health. That compound also helps reduce the concentration of homocysteine in the body. Although a necessary amino acid, homocysteine, when present in excessive levels, can damage blood vessels and play a role in heart disease, stroke and dementia.

The beetroot is packed with other ingredients that can boost the immune system, keep cancer cells at bay, protect heart muscle and the nervous system, balance digestive processes and blood sugar levels. The list of beneficial ingredients, available in significant levels in every beetroot, includes folic acid, manganese and potassium.

In addition, edible beet greens contain significant amounts of calcium, iron and such potent antioxidants as Vitamin C and Vitamin A.

Beat Spring to the Punch

In winter a trip to the supermarket can be depressing. Much of the produce looks weary from the long trip from South America or sunnier parts of the United States. The healthier looking vegetables, often greenhouse-grown, may carry a stiff price tag. But even in winter, grocery shelves are likely to contain locally grown and ruddily hale beets, at cheap prices. Because beets tolerate cold temperatures, they can be planted in late summer and harvested in late fall. In addition, the roots keep well for up to three months in cool, moist conditions. And not long after the beets from the late fall harvest grow tired in storage, the shopper can keep an eye out for the next crop, planted quite early in the spring, well before the last frost and often as soon as the ground has thawed enough to be worked.

Beat Boredom at the Dinner Table

Just as jalapenos perk up otherwise bland dishes, beets add visual pizzazz. Salads can go from lackluster to special with the addition of grated beets, particularly in the months when brightly colored vegetables are in short supply. The Polish condiment cwikla, a combination of grated beets and grated horseradish, jazzes up a ham dinner or even a ham omelet — in both visual and gustatory ways. Bowls of the noble Polish soup barszcz or its Russian equivalent borscht dress a dinner table like a necklace of large, glistening rubies.

The irresistible conclusion: It’s hard to beat beets.


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