Love ‘em or hate ‘em, beets are all the rage these days. Some might even say they’re the next hot superfood. But is this popular root vegetable really all that? In this article, we’re going to dive into all things beet and find out if beets health benefits are all they’re cracked up to be.
Beets: A Short History
Beetroot (Beta vulgaris), which is known by most of us as simply the beet, has been an integral part of the world’s cultures for over 2,000 years. In fact, the Ancient Greeks and Romans revered beets so much that they not only associated them with love, lust, and wealth, but they also perfected ways to grow these spring and fall vegetables during the hot summer months.
However, the round bulb we associate with beets wasn’t cultivated until the 16th century, so the ancients ate mainly beet greens and used the thin, fibrous roots for medicinal purposes.
While beets are now available in both white and yellow varieties, the original beet was a lighter shade of the brilliant red color we’re familiar with today. Yet, even now, white beets are more commonly used for producing sugar. They’re also lacking in betalains—phytochemicals that give beets their color and many of their health benefits.
And if you’ve ever wondered what gives beets their earthy (some would say dirt) flavor, that’s the result of a substance called geosmin. This aromatic terpene derivative is the same substance that contributes to that special scent that perfumes the air when rain falls after a period of drought.
Although the heady smell of geosmin in the air is the byproduct of soil bacteria, it’s still unclear why the chemical exists in beets. While some researchers have hypothesized that these same soil bacteria are also responsible for the geosmin in beets, at least one study has found evidence to suggest that beets may produce the compound on their own.
But what’s perhaps even more interesting is the fact that we humans, who generally have such a poor sense of smell, can detect the presence of geosmin at concentrations as small as five parts per trillion—for comparison, sharks can smell blood at a concentration of around one part per million, while dogs can sense odors in the range of one or two parts per trillion—yet scientists still have no idea why we’re so attuned to this particular compound.
The Superfood Nutrition of Beets
If you’re looking for a nutritional powerhouse, look no further than the humble beet. This root veggie is packed with tons of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even protein. Just take a look at what you can find in a cup of beets!
|15% of the RDA of fiber||4% of the RDA of protein|
|11% of the RDA of vitamin C||5% of the RDA of vitamin B6|
|3% of RDA of thiamine and riboflavin||37% of the RDA of folate|
|6% of the RDA of iron||8% of the RDA of magnesium|
|5% of the RDA of phosphorus||13% of the RDA of potassium|
|5% of the RDA of copper||22% of the RDA of manganese|
But that’s not all.
Beets are also superb sources of phytochemicals—beneficial plant chemicals that fight free radicals, aid detoxification, and protect the body from chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The majority of phytonutrients found in beets are the betalains—a category of phytochemicals that further contains two groups: the red-violet betacyanins, which are composed of betanin, probetanin, isobetanin, and neobetanin, and the yellow-orange betaxanthins, which are composed of miraxanthin, vulgaxanthin, indicaxanthin, and portulaxanthin.
Beets Health Benefits Galore
Beets are perhaps best known for their high levels of naturally occurring nitrates, which are converted in the body into nitric oxide—a potent vasodilator that relaxes blood vessels, helping to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, and provide protection from heart attacks and strokes.
A study published in the journal Nutrients found that participants who drank beet juice for approximately a month experienced an increase in nitric oxide levels and an associated decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In addition, several studies have shown that beetroot’s effects on nitric oxide production can also enhance athletic performance.
Couple the ability of beets to improve exercise performance with their significant levels of protein and dietary fiber—which can assist with muscle building while helping you feel fuller longer—and they may also help you reach your weight-loss goals.
However, beets possess health benefits that go far beyond their effect on nitric oxide—benefits that are attributed in large part to their high concentration of betalains, which have been found to possess significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science found that participants who drank beetroot juice experienced decreased blood sugar levels after eating a meal—a result researchers attributed to breakdown products of betanin.
In addition, a review published in Molecules, A Journal of Synthetic Chemistry and Natural Product Chemistry found that the betanins in red beets are effective at reducing cancer risk at very low doses. In a similar manner, a study published in the journal Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry demonstrated the cytotoxic effects of betanin against prostate and breast cancer cells.
Possible Side Effects of Beets
Even though beets are an extremely healthy food, their relatively high levels of oxalates can cause issues in some people. So if you’re prone to oxalate-containing kidney stones, you should probably avoid both beetroot and beet greens.
A more interesting side effect of eating beets is beeturia. This condition, which results in red or pink urine, occurs in approximately 10% to 15% of adults in the United States. Although perfectly harmless, beeturia is associated with iron deficiency, so anyone experiencing discoloration of their urine after eating beets should have their iron levels checked.
How to Get More Beets in Your Diet
If you’re ready to take advantage of the many health benefits of beets, it’s important to remember that the beneficial phytonutrients in beets degrade with cooking.
So think beet juice and raw beets.
If you love the taste of beets, perfect! But even if you don’t you can still disguise their earthy flavor by adding them to flavorful shakes, smoothies, and juice blends. There’s even beet-flavored ice cubes to toss in with your favorite beverage.
Whether you adore the sweet, earthy flavor of beets or find the odor of geosmin a little more than you can bear, we’re confident there’s a beet recipe for you. So what are you waiting for? Why not give beets a try today!