Beets might not be much to look at. But beneath their dull, rather unassuming exterior lie sweet, tender jewels with a buttery flavor and a wealth of nutrients. Fresh beets possess a taste and texture that canned ones just can't match, and they come with a bonus -- savory greens.
For centuries, people have used beets as a remedy for ailments from constipation to blood-related problems. In the 1950s an enterprising Hungarian physician treated his cancer patients with a regimen based on a daily quart of raw red beet juice. While his methods were questionable, the idea of beets as cancer fighters isn't far-fetched.Red beets get their garnet color from antioxidants called betalains. These vivid pigments help your body detoxify potentially cancer-causing substances; studies show that betanin, one type of betalain, is effective in preventing lung, liver, and skin cancer.
The other medicinal claims for beets make sense, too. A good source of fiber, including a type of soluble fiber called pectin, beets keep your digestive system running smoothly. They also contain iron, essential for red blood cell production, as well as potassium and folate, known respectively for regulating blood pressure and protecting your heart. Whatever you do, don't discard the greens. They also contain folate and plenty of fiber, potassium, beta-carotene, and vitamin K, which is necessary for proper blood clotting.
How to Buy
At farmers' markets and gourmet stores, you'll likely find golden, white, and striped beets -- called Chioggia or Candy-Cane -- next to the red ones. Look for bunches of firm beets with fresh-looking greens. (Wilted beet greens don't necessarily signal bad beets, but better-looking greens mean more vegetable for your money.) Unless you're planning to chop or grate them, choose a uniform-sized bunch so they'll cook in the same amount of time. (Small to medium beets are generally more tender.)
Once home, cut the greens from the roots, leaving an inch of stem attached, and place the different parts in separate plastic bags and refrigerate. Beet roots will last at least a month, but you should use the greens within three or four days.
Preparing beets is a messy business. They stain everything they touch a vivid pink (not a problem with golden beets). Roasting and steaming them with their skins on keeps the color where it belongs; the skins slip off easily once cooked. Prepare beet greens as you would Swiss chard, sauteing the chopped stems and leaves with a little garlic.
Per four cooked, boiled, drained beets (each approximately 2 inches in diameter)
Fat: 0.36 g
Beta-carotene: 42 mcg
Fiber: 4 g = 16 percent* DRI**
Folate: 160 mcg = 40 percent DRI
Iron: 1.58 mg = 8.8 percent DRI
Potassium: 610 mg = 13 percent DRI*
*Percentages are for women 31 to 50 years old who are not pregnant
** DRI, Dietary Reference Intakes, is based on National Academy of Sciences' Dietary Reference Intakes, 1997 to 2004
Did You Know?
Beets have the highest sugar content of any vegetable -- more than sweet potatoes, corn, or carrots. At 8 percent sugar by weight, they're even sweeter than some fruits, including strawberries and watermelon. Sweetest of all? A half cup of cooked beets has only 37 calories.
Text by Cheryl Redmond
Recipes by Charlyne Mattox