1. Beets have a much underappreciated role in history. The vegetable that we call the table beet was a salad crop in Roman times. Farmers in northern climates selected for swollen roots that could be stored over long winters, creating the bulbous plant we know today. But beets are about much more than borscht. When the Napoleonic wars blocked France from obtaining sugar from the West Indies, European scientists turned to beets as a potential alternative source of sugar. These experiments revealed that beets produce sucrose exactly as sugarcane does, and beets were bred intensively for sugar content. Today, the world derives half of its sugar from sugarbeets. Beet sugar may well have played a small role in ending the Caribbean slave trade, as its emergence provided an alternative to sugarcane harvested by slaves.
2. Today’s beets are not your grandmother’s root vegetable. Although table beets remain a niche crop in the United States, beet extracts are quite popular in a variety of foods. The red pigment that leaks from sliced beets, for instance, is commonly used as a natural substitute for artificial dyes in ice cream, drink mixes, yogurt and other dairy products, as well as natural-food snacks like Terra Chips. Recent studies have shown the pigment is a powerful antioxidant that can fight cancer and aid the function of your immune system.
3. They don’t really taste like dirt. When your kids turn their noses up at beets, tell them it’s not the soil that gives beets their earthy flavor—it’s the geosmin. An organic compound produced by microbes in the soil, geosmin gives off a smell like freshly plowed earth or a field after a rainstorm. Human noses are very sensitive to geosmin, and while some people don’t like it, others love it. Other foods high in geosmin include spinach, lettuce and mushrooms.
4. Actually, they’re quite good. Unfortunately, many Americans are familiar with beets only as a canned product. But beets, like most root vegetables, are extremely versatile and can be prepared in a number of interesting ways. Among my favorites is to roast beets with a medley of root vegetables. Just chop and blanch roots and cover lightly with olive oil, rosemary and salt, and then roast in an oven at 450 degrees for about 25 minutes, until the outer surfaces are seared.
5. And don’t forget the greens. History demonstrates that both the leaves and roots of beets are useful as edible crops, and both contain substantial amounts of nutrients. Today, though, most Western consumers focus only on the roots, overlooking a wonderful salad vegetable. But many high-end restaurants, such as Madison’s L’Etoile, are rediscovering the versatility of the beet and incorporating both roots and greens into their seasonal menus. Frankly, I consider this a monumental leap forward for society.
Irwin Goldman is vice dean of CALS, but he’s probably more famous as “the beet guy.” Since joining the horticulture department in 1992, Goldman has overseen one of the only table-beet breeding programs in the United States, which has done considerable research on the genetics of beets and their nutritional benefits.