Beetroot is beautiful. It’s beautiful to look at and it tastes beautiful too. But there’s so much more beauty to beetroot than this. Beetroot is commonly a dark red/purple root vegetable, although there are white and yellow/gold as well as orange varieties too. Its Latin name is Beta vulgaris and it’s part of the Betoideae subgroup, belonging to the Amaranthaceae family. The Beta vulgaris is classified as a herbaceous plant, that bears both flowers and fleshy edible roots. Beetroot is cousin to chard, sugar beet and spinach beet. An ancient uncultivated relation of beetroot is the sea beet, Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima, where beetroot descends from. This grew wild in coastal areas of the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and dates back to prehistoric times.1
History and Traditional Uses
The seemingly humble beet is rooted in history and recorded in ancient Assyrian writing as far back as 800 BC, where it was noted to be thriving in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and esteemed enough by the Greeks to be offered to Apollo, the sun god, in the temple of Delphi. Originally grown in the Mediterranean region, the Greeks have been attributed with being the first to cultivate beetroot from the wild plant and this practice was carried on by the Romans. The cultivation of beetroot slowly spread across Europe as the plant adapted well to the soils and less temperate climates found in Northern Europe, proving able to survive frost and almost freezing temperatures.2
Beetroot was traditionally used as a medicine in the middle ages as a treatment for indigestion; constipation; skin wounds; fever and skin conditions. It was also revered as an aphrodisiac! 3 Medicinal recipes from the middle ages were simple and include boiling beetroot in salted water or chicken broth then drinking it to help ease stomach ache and gastric problems, for example.4 From around about the 16th century beetroot became popular as a vegetable rather than a medicinal plant and in the more modern era it’s been used as a culinary ingredient, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. As a plant it’s almost entirely edible; not only can you eat the root, the leaves and stems are also edible and make a good addition to a salad. Renowned 17th century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard, describes the leaves of the Beta vulgaris as “pleasant to the taste but also delightful to the eye.”5 In recent years there’s been something of a revival of beetroot in terms of its use medicinally, due to its beneficial health properties, and has since become a permanent feature of the European diet in both fresh root form and as a dietary supplement in the form of beetroot extract.6
Although able to withstand colder climates, ideal growing conditions for beetroot is fertile, neutral and moist but well-drained soil, with low levels of lime and acidity. Ideally a soil pH above 5.5–6 is best for optimal growth. The soil should be loose, raked well and clear of stones and other debris that can restrict the development of the root. Beetroot can grow in both direct sunlight and partial shade but thrives in sunny spots and plants exposed to the sun form larger, sweeter roots.7 Today, numerous varieties of beetroot are cultivated, both heirloom and hybrid, many with wonderful names, such as; ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Red Ace’, ‘Touchstone Gold’, ‘Early Wonder’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Avenger’ and ‘Warrior’. Beetroot is usually at its best harvested between June and October; the root of the beetroot should be firm and the leaves crisp.8
Essential Vitamins and Minerals
The benefits of beetroot extract are extensive including being a rich source of Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Folic acid, Magnesium, Nitrates, Potassium and Manganese.
- Vitamin B6 is beneficial to the immune and nervous system, red blood cell function and energy metabolism.
- Vitamin C is beneficial for the body’s natural immune defense,energy metabolism and production of collagen for blood vessel integrity.
- Magnesium is thought to be beneficial to normal muscle and nervous system function and reducing the effects of fatigue.
- Nitrates and Potassium in the formulation provided by the beetroot extract is believed to maintain normal blood pressure.
- Potassium is also essential for building muscle and maintaining healthy electrical activity of the heart.
- Manganese helps to regulate blood sugar levels, strengthen bones and support the immune system.9
Beetroot gets its vivid colour from highly bioactive pigments called betalains. Beta vulgaris produces betalains to protect the plant from damage caused by UV and these brilliant bioactive compounds have been shown to offer similar protective action from harmful UV rays to skin.10 It makes sense, therefore, that betalains are similar in chemical structure and have a similar mode of synthesis to melanins, the animal pigment group, most notably to eulamelanins.11 Based on differences in molecular structure, betalains are divided into two categories; betacyanins and betaxanthins. The predominant betacyanin in beetroot is betanin and the predominant betaxanthins are vulgaxanthin I and vulgaxanthin II.12 Betacyanins and betaxanthins are phytochemicals, particularly abundant in beetroot, which are thought to possess potent antioxidant activity, amongst other health benefits.
Beetroot has been praised in particular for its powerful antioxidant capabilities. The antioxidant activity of the betalains present in beetroot is believed to able to neutralise free radicals, limiting damage to cells and other body tissue; activate antioxidant defense processes; detoxify the blood; help reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol; protect against DNA damage.and regulate the activity of genes.13
Other Health Benefits and Uses of Beetroot
Further to this, the overall biological activity of beetroot has been extensively studied and its health promoting and disease preventing properties have shown to be far and reaching:
- Chemopreventive and anticancer.
- Neuroprotective. Dementia. Cognitive function and health.
- Detoxification. Liver cleanse. Elimination of toxins. Liver disease.
- Promotes healthy immune system.
- Digestive. Indigestion. Constipation.
- Kidney disorders.
- Gall bladder health.
- Macular degeneration.
- Respiratory health.
- Cardiovascular health. Heart disease.
- Improved blood flow. Lower blood pressure.
- Energy metabolism.
- Enhance sports and exercise performance.14
Believe in the Beet
So the basic beetroot isn’t so basic after all. It’s used to improve sports performance, strength and stamina as well as generally supporting the immune system and beneficial as both prevention of and treatment for a variety of health conditions. For example, beetroot has been studied for its effects on inflammation and endothelial activity. Research has also shown that beetroot could help to regulate blood flow in the brain, which could result in improved cognitive function.17 Perhaps most notably, a link has been identified between the phytochemical properties of beetroot and the prevention of diseases brought about by ‘oxidative stress’, for instance, cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. The beauty of beetroot is beautifully clear and should be embraced in our diets as a ‘wonder’ of the plant world for its nutritional, medicinal and health benefits, as lovingly and wisely as it once was in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
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1 The A-Z of Allotment Vegetables By Caroline Foley. New Holland Publishers, 2006. P.77. Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=vvn_5cnprUUC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=beets+prehistory+record+of+plant&source=bl&ots=BY0i4psQ3b&sig=yDtYCd2VuxqO7F1Nxt2kgqjiJ04&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxkenZh-3SAhVLIMAKHVCtCeAQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=beets%20prehistory%20record%20of%20plant&f=false
2 The A-Z of Allotment Vegetables By Caroline Foley. New Holland Publishers, 2006. P.77. Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=vvn_5cnprUUC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=beets+prehistory+record+of+plant&source=bl&ots=BY0i4psQ3b&sig=yDtYCd2VuxqO7F1Nxt2kgqjiJ04&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxkenZh-3SAhVLIMAKHVCtCeAQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=beets%20prehistory%20record%20of%20plant&f=false
4 A Brief History of the Beetroot: https://kristinalupp.com/2011/07/18/a-brief-history-of-the-beetroot/
5 The A-Z of Allotment Vegetables By Caroline Foley. New Holland Publishers, 2006. P.77. Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=vvn_5cnprUUC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=beets+prehistory+record+of+plant&source=bl&ots=BY0i4psQ3b&sig=yDtYCd2VuxqO7F1Nxt2kgqjiJ04&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxkenZh-3SAhVLIMAKHVCtCeAQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=beets%20prehistory%20record%20of%20plant&f=false
14 The Potential Benefits of Red Beetroot Supplementation in Health and Disease:
Dietary Nitrate Supplementation and Exercise Performance: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008816/
16 The American journal of Clinical Nutrition: Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. 2004. Retrieved from:http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/5/727.full#aff-1
17 The Potential Benefits of Red Beetroot Supplementation in Health and Disease: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425174/
What Are Phytonutrients? http://www.livescience.com/52541-phytonutrients.html