(Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris – Family Chenopodiaceae)
Beets, Beetroot, Red beet, Yellow beet, Roman beet
Beets are members of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae).
Most are herbaceous annuals or perennials with showy, often succulent, leaves that are sometimes covered in a waxy bloom. Many members of this family have deep tap roots, so they can grow in salty soils.
Beta is the most important genus and includes such vegetables as the beetroot, chard, and sugar beet.
All these cultivated forms descended from the sea beet (B. maritima), a wild seashore plant that grows around the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa. This plant has small roots, but the leaves and stems are still eaten.
Early Greek writers referred to this plant; but, by about 300 BCE, there were many varieties producing edible roots. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate the leaves and used the very small root for medicinal purposes. By the 3rd century, the Romans were beginning to eat the root as a vegetable. As a result, careful cultivation began to produce a larger root, along with several recipes for its use.
Until well after medieval times, the beetroot remained long and thin.
The first mention of a swollen root comes from the botanical work of the 1550s.
In Europe, the common beet was light in colour; and a yellow variety was developed for animal fodder. The red beet was introduced in the 17th century, and soon became very popular.
The scarlet colour is caused by a combination of a purple pigment, betacyanin, and a yellow pigment called betaxanthin.
The yellow beet roots
obviously have little of the purple pigment.
The pigments are much more stable than most red plant colours and are sometimes extracted and used as edible food colourings.
A cultivated root can be the size of an orange or one as large as a grapefruit. Although the red varieties are now more dominant, there are golden and white varieties, some of which are shaped like thick carrots. Yellow beets are of commercial importance only for their pigment.
For food, they are grown almost exclusively by home gardeners and by specialty farmers, which is also true for white-fleshed beets. There is an interesting beet called the Chioggia.
It has pinwheel red and white stipled flesh with a sweet flavour.
In addition to sugars, proteins, fats, and organic acids, beets also contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, sulfur, iodine, and many B vitamins. The vitamin C content is about 10%, and the vitamin A only slight. On the other hand, the leaves are a good source of beta carotene.
Beets are known as a good blood purifier improving circulation, promoting proper menstruation, and stimulating the bowels, thereby relieving constipation. Beets are also recommended as being helpful in treating certain liver ailments.
The roots are also rich in the complex carbohydrates of starches, sugars, and the indigestible fibers of cellulose and hemicellulose.
When stored, beets become sweeter as their starches then convert to sugar. Like carrots, beets have such stiff cell walls that it is hard for the human digestive system to extract the nutrients inside.
Cooking will not soften the cellulose in the cell walls of the beet, but it will dissolve enough of the hemicellulose so that digestive juices are able to penetrate. Cooking also activates flavour molecules in beets, making them taste better.
Before cooking beets, cut off the tops within a couple of inches of the top. This helps lock in the nutrients during cooking. When the tops are attached to any root vegetable, they leech the nutrients from the root.
They should be cooked whole and then peeled; otherwise, they bleed all their colour and nutrients into the water.
The greens and the roots should be stored separately as the greens are highly perishable, but the roots can last for some time in storage.
Beets are excellent raw in salads or cooked and served in various dishes, including bortsch soup or pickled.
Caution: Beets (as well as celery, eggplant, lettuce, radishes, spinach, collard and turnip greens) are known to be nitrogen collectors and contain nitrates that convert naturally into nitrites in the stomach, where some of the nitrites combine with amines to form nitrosamines, known carcinogens. This natural chemical reaction does not pose a problem for the healthy adult, but can for infants if the food is cooked and then left standing at room temperature for any length of time. This causes the microorganisms that convert nitrates to nitrites to begin to multiply, ultimately increasing the amount of the nitrites in the food. Also, because the leaves contain oxalic acid, they should not be eaten to excess as they could interfere with calcium and iron metabolism. Oxalates bind calcium, which may ultimately contribute to kidney stones.
The red colour of the beetroot does not come from carotenes, but from anthocyanin pigments. Betacyanin and betaxanthin are the water soluble red betalain pigments in beets, becoming more intensely red when such acids as lemon juice or vinegar are added, or turn slightly blue in such an alkaline solution as baking soda and water.
The ability to metabolize the betacyanins and betaxanthins is genetic. People with two recessive genes for this trait cannot break down these red pigments and, therefore, will excrete them, causing the urine and feces to turn a bright red. However, this discolouration will not cause a false-positive result in a test for occult blood.
Beetroots are grouped according to their shape: round or globe shaped, tapered or long, and flat or oval.
To reduce the amount of thinning required, breeders have introduced “monogerm” varieties. These each contain a single seed that has a natural inhibitor which slows or even prevents germination. This is removed by soaking or washing the seeds for about an hour before planting. With other varieties, three seeds are sown in one area at a time.
Signs of soil deficiency is seen in the leaves that ultimately affects the entire vegetable. Yellow blotches between the veins are a sign of manganese deficiency. This appears on older leaves first, and can be a problem if the soil is too alkaline.
Rough patches on the surface of the root and water-logged brown patches and rings at the center are signs of boron deficiency. Beets are another vegetable that flourishes alongside any of the Cabbage family in the garden.
They also like carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, and most beans except runners.
Globe varieties include the following:
Boltardy, Bonel, Detroit 2 Little Ball (a baby beet ideal for pickling), Detroit 2 Dark Red, Monogram (a monogerm variety), and Regalia.
Tapered varieties include the following:
Cheltenham Green Top and Cheltenham Mono.
Mini roots include the following:
Pronto, Action, and Monaco.
Other varieties include the following:
Albina Vereduna or Snowhite, an obvious white variety having the advantage that it does not stain, but it is the leaves that have the most nutrients.
Barbabietola di Chioggia is an Italian variety having white inner rings seen when sliced. When cooked, it becomes a pale pink.
Burpees Golden has beautiful orange skin and yellow flesh, and is harvested when small. Although it has no red pigment, it does have the typical flavour.
Chioggia is a round, sweet, smooth-skinned beet, being a bright red on the outside with a bold pattern of red and white rings inside. It is cultivated and sold primarily in Italy, where beet juice in used to colour pasta.
Egyptian Turnip Rooted, D’Egypte, Egyptian Flat is an American introduction, and first grown around Boston in 1869.
Formanova is a late variety, semi-long, but cylindrical, and in particular demand in Scandinavia.
Forono is a very tasty cylindrical root.
Cylindra is a dark oval root.
(Beta vulgaris Crassa group – Family Chenopodiaceae)
Sugar beets are the second most important source of sugar in the world, but were grown by the Romans as vegetables many centuries ago.
HOWEVER, the USFDA allows genetically modified sugar beets to be grown and added to processed foods!
As early as 1590, the French botanist, Olivier de Serres, managed to extract a sugar syrup from the beet. At that time, cane sugar was very expensive; so his discovery might have been utilized, but nothing ever came of it.
Once again, their commercial use could have dated from 1747, when a German chemist was able to extract over 6% of the sugar from the roots of the white variety. But nothing was done then either.
Today, improved methods have raised that extraction percentage to around 20%. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the sugar beet was recognized for its sugar on a commercial level.
One of the earliest promoters of the sugar beet was Napoleon, who, in 1812, encouraged its development as a means of boycotting the British-dominated colonies supplies of sugar cane.
To this day, France remains the world’s second biggest supplier of sugar beets. Large quantities of sugar beets are also grown in Russia, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the USA, and Canada.
Only fully refined white sugar can be made from the beet. Unlike the cane, which yields a range of agreeable semi-refined brown sugars and syrups, beets give only a smelly crude extract, which is usually given to animals to eat. The sugar is contained in the whitish conical roots of the plant.
The beets are harvested when their average weight reaches about two pounds. To extract the sugar, the beets are washed, sliced, and boiled in successive changes of water, with each stage yielding progressively less sugar. The sugary liquid is then treated in succession with lime and carbon dioxide gas.
The latter causes the lime to solidify like chalk. This physically entangles much of the impurities as it falls out of the solution. The chalk is then filtered after which the later stages of refining become exactly as for cane sugar processing supposedly, making it indistinguishable from that obtained from sugar cane.
Scientists report that the sugar from the cane or the beet is exactly the same, meaning that they can detect no chemical difference. However, the fact remains that the two sugars have different origins and different initial processing, which is not lost on the homemaker whose expertise it is to make jams and marmalades. To them, there is a difference in the outcome, a fact which should not be lost on these eminent scientists.