Beets – you should try them – they really do taste good.

April 20, 2011


Beets belong to the chenopod family and are a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. Betalains are the pigments that give beets their rich color. Foods belonging to the chenopod family-including beets, chard, spinach and quinoa continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. The red and yellow betalain pigments found in this food family, their unique epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids, and the special connection between their overall phytonutrients and our nervous system health (including our specialized nervous system organs like the eye) point to the chenopod family of foods as unique in their health value.

Remember all those Russian centenarians? Beets, frequently consumed either pickled or in borscht, the traditional Russian soup, may be one reason behind their long and healthy lives. These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer. What is most striking about beets is not the fact that they are rich in antioxidants; what’s striking is the unusual mix of antioxidants that they contain. We’re used to thinking about vegetables as rich in antioxidant carotenoids, and in particular, beta-carotene; among all well-studied carotenoids, none is more commonly occurring in vegetables than beta-carotene. In beets, however, the “claim-to-fame” antioxidant is not beta-carotene, but two different antioxidant carotenoids, not nearly as concentrated in vegetables as a group. These two carotenoids are lutein and zeaxanthin.

The betalain pigments present in beets have repeatedly been shown to support activity in our body’s Phase 2 detoxification process. Phase 2 is the metabolic step that our cells use to hook activated, unwanted toxic substances up with small nutrient groups. This “hook up” process effectively neutralizes the toxins and makes them sufficiently water-soluble for excretion in the urine.

Many of the unique phytonutrients present in beets have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds. It’s important to note other areas of potential health benefits associated with beets: anti-cancer benefits and fiber-related benefits. The combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules in beets makes this food a highly-likely candidate for risk reduction of many cancer types. Lab studies on human tumor cells have confirmed this possibility for colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate and testicular cancers

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.

Cook beets lightly. Studies show beets’ concentration of phytonutrients, such as betalains, is diminished by heat.

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 a dressing of (2 TBSP olive oil, 1 TBSP lemon juice and 1 clove of garlic, minced).  Salt & pepper to taste.  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.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

  • Simply grate raw beets for a delicious and colorful addition to salads or decorative garnish for soups.
  • 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.

 I hope you give beets a try — a wonderful super food.     

Dr. Wendy

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