Beets: A Great Two-in-One Food

September 1, 2010

By johnmac

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Before the season for fresh, local beets is over, I thought I would share some easy preparation tips as well as the many health benefits associated with this beautiful root vegetable. It is one of my very favourite things to eat – in any form!

Given a beet’s dark red, ‘blood-like’ colour, it isn’t surprising that it has long been considered as a blood tonic, thus having the ability to fortify the entire body.

Beets are an amazing ‘2-in-1’ food since you can eat both the root (the beet) and the leaves (the greens).

Beets come in many colours, but the most common colour is a beautiful, deep, purpley-red.  Beets are delicious raw or cooked. The greens are best when they’re lightly cooked. They taste similar to Swiss chard.

In addition to their studied anti-cancer properties, beets have also been shown to lower cholesterol, lower triglycerides and increase HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, making them an important player in promoting heart health.

Nutritional and Health Benefits

Beets are a great source of many important nutrients including folic acid, manganese, potassium, iron and copper. They also contain some very unique phytonutrients, some of which help protect against certain cancers, especially colon cancer. In fact, some sources state that beets and beet juice have been used successfully in cancer therapies. This can likely be related back to the fact that beets were traditionally touted as a tonic for the liver – and it’s interesting to note that this is supported with recent studies that have found that the health promoting properties of beets are due to their effects on the liver.

Studies show that eating beets increases the activity of two anti-oxidant enzymes in the liver often associated with cancer prevention: glutathione peroxidase and glutathione-S-transferase. These are very strong anti-oxidants that play a major role in overall health, as they neutralize free radicals produced as part of the liver’s detoxification role (the liver is the body’s primary detoxification organ). This health benefit of beets is very significant, as excess free radicals in the body is a major cause of premature aging and disease development.

Selection, Storage and Preparation

Selection

When purchasing fresh beets, try to find ones that still have the greens attached. This has two benefits: you can eat the greens in addition to the beets and the greens will also give an indication of how fresh the beet root is. Select those beets with the freshest looking greens. The beet itself should have a firm texture, dark colour and smooth skin. It’s best to choose beets that are all about the same size (medium-sized are best) so that they will all cook evenly.

Storage

Unwashed beets should be refrigerated in a vegetable bag and should last for up to 4 weeks. If you purchase beets with the greens on them, cut the greens off about 2 inches from the beet. Unwashed greens should be refrigerated in a separate vegetable bag from the beets and used within 3 or 4 days. If you aren’t going to eat your cooked beets and greens within a few days of cooking them, they will freeze well.

Preparation

Some people peel and cut beets before cooking them. I prefer to cook beets whole and peel and cut them after they are cooked if necessary. This is a lot less messy, preserves colour and nutrients, and actually makes peeling easier, as once the beets are cooked, the skin can just be rubbed off. I usually wear some kind of rubber or kitchen glove when I am handling beets so that my hands and nails don’t get stained.

Beets can be eaten raw and are a great, colourful addition to green salads. It is best to grate raw beets as this makes them easier to digests (this is the case for carrots too). Grating raw beets can get very messy, so you may want to use a food processor.

To cook beets, I suggest steaming or roasting. The cooking time depends on the size of the beets. If you are using medium-sized beets, steaming takes at least 20-30 minutes, while roasting in a 375F oven takes at least an hour. I check for doneness by piercing the beets with a fork. The fork should pierce the beet fairly easily, but the beets should still feel firm – not soft and mushy. Once the beets are cooked, I simply rub the skin off with my glove-adorned hands and then cut them into the desired sized pieces.

To cook the greens, simply wash, cut into pieces and put in boiling water for just one or two minutes. While you may be tempted to steam them, beet greens contain oxalic acid which may cause problems related to calcium absorption, gall bladder and kidney stones for some individuals. Boiling the greens allows some of the acid to leach out into the cooking water (this is also true for spinach and Swiss chard). Since oxalic acid will leach out into the cooking water, it is best to discard this water when you are done cooking the greens and not drink it or add it to any other dishes.

Once cooked, I like mixing the beets and greens together. Their flavours compliment each other perfectly and it also makes for a great, nutrient-packed combination. I toss the beets and greens combo with olive oil, balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt and a pinch of ground cloves. They are also delicious with just a bit of butter and salt. Experiment and find your flavour!

Note that after you eat beets, you might notice that your stool – and maybe even your urine – have a red or pink hue to them. Don’t panic! This is normal and is not a cause for alarm.

Recipe for Beet Kvass

If you want to super-boost the nutritional punch of beets, try this easy and quick recipe for Beet Kvass, a slightly effervescent lacto-fermented drink, from the book “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon:

‘This drink is valuable for its medicinal qualities and as a digestive aid. Beets are loaded with nutrients. One 4-ounce glass, morning and night, is an excellent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver and is a good treatment for kidney stones and other ailments”.

Ingredients

  • 3 medium, raw, organic beets, peeled and coarsely chopped (DO NOT GRATE)
  • 1/4 cup whey. You can purchase whey or strain a high-quality, commercial  plain yogurt to collect some. Whey is the liquid that sits on top of the yogurt when you first open the container. To collect whey, line a large strainer set over a bowel with cheese cloth and pour the yogurt into the strainer. Let sit for several hours to allow whey to strain out of the yogurt. The whey can be stored in a glass jar in the fridge for several months.
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • Filtered water (e.g. reverse osmosis)

Instructions

Place the first 3 ingredients into a 2 litre glass container. Add water, stir well and cover securely. Keep at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the fridge. It is then ready to drink! When you are almost finished drinking the kvass, you can refill the container with water, keep it at room temperature again for 2 days and then refridgerate. After this second time around however, you will have to throw out the beets and use fresh ones to make more kvass – but you can keep some of the liquid and use it as starter instead of whey. Cheers to your health!

Enjoy!

References

  1. Foods That Heal, Dr. Bernard Jensen, Avery Publishing, NY NY 1993
  2. The World’s Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide to Your Healthier Way of Eating, George Mateljan, 2007
  3. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, 2nd Edition, Sally Fallon, NewTrends Publishing Inc, Washington DC, 2001
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