I used to hate beets. It was my childhood nemesis. I hated their rubbery texture. I hated how they stared back at me in a defiant way as if they they knew what a sturdy blockage they were against me getting my dessert. I hated the way they bled into my mashed potatoes. Pink mashed potatoes? That is just wrong!
Forty years later, a couple of friends came over for dinner bearing a big bowl of salad ingredients. We laughed and told stories as we cooked dinner. I turned to stir the spaghetti sauce but out of the corner of my eye, I watched my dear friend defile her beautiful salad with grated beets. I bit my lip.
“Just eat it this one time and say nothing,” I thought to myself. “You’re a big girl. You’ll survive. You can even have dessert whether you finish everything on your plate or not.”
My first, tentative bite was not horrible. My next bite was when my brain allowed adult-sized Sue to actually taste the beets. They were sweet and fresh. The texture was superior to grated carrots. The aftertaste was invigorating. I was a newly hatched beet fan.
The purple color that pooled in the corners of my plate as a child is a pigment called betalain. It has powerful antioxidant activity which guard against eye degeneration, heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer.
Betalins are also great anti-inflammatory medicine. I like digging into a big bowl of salad with freshly grated beets on top after a challenging hike. It helps my muscles rebuild and takes the kinks out of knotted calves. Fresh is the key word since betalins are water soluble. You lose so many antioxidants in the cooking process and then you are back to that rubbery texture that I never recovered from during childhood.
Some people are highly reactive to betalains. According to the George Mateljan Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading education on healthy foods, only 10-15% of Americans are betalain responders. “A betalain responder is a person who has the capacity to absorb and metabolize enough betalains from beets (and other foods) to gain full antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and Phase 2 triggering benefits. (Phase 2 is the second step in our cellular detoxification process).”
Imagine being the lucky person who can suck in beets like that. It would be the best superpower ever. The George Mateljan Foundation website doesn’t say how to tell if you are one of the lucky few. You probably get a secret handshake too.
This same foundation reports that another 10-15% of Americans can show signs of beeturia which is a reddening of the urine after eating beets daily. The color itself is not a problem but it is literally a litmus test to indicate problems with iron metabolism. If you show signs of beeturia, you should see a qualified health care practitioner to find out if your iron is either too high or too low. Later, you can thank the beets for giving you the heads up on a dangerous health problem.
Today, I helped a friend prepare her new raised bed. The soil is loose and dark. Tonight’s rain should settle the freshly turned earth so that any air pockets fill in. Tomorrow we are going to plant the bed with beet seeds. I have 2 varieties, both promise to swell into dark purple roots with delicately veined leaves.
The big red beet that we are looking forward to pulling out of the dirt in a few months is a very different creature than the plant that was grown a few hundred years ago. Beets were originally grown for the green tops as we now grow chard. The roots were thrown over the fence to supplement animal feed. Beet greens are still a great addition to salads, stews and stir fries.
Beets are not fussy garden plants. They just need a warm spot to germinate with compost rich soil, plenty of water and they are good to go. Most people grow them in winter gardens as a year round green. A little sprinkle of wood ash on the soil after you plant them gives them the extra potassium they crave.
Beets also store for months in root cellars or garage beer fridges. For food preservation freaks like myself, they are delightfully forgiving. Beets can be pickled, frozen, canned, and even dried. I have even put grated beets in smoothie. The possibilities are unlimited.
Watch out, mashed potatoes! Get ready to go pink!