What You Need To Know:
- Beets are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants
- They contain significant levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, fiber and folate as well as vitamins A and C
- Fermenting beets counteracts its natural sugar and makes it a probiotic powerhouse
While the super-health conscious Obamas requested that beets not be planted in the White House organic vegetable garden, there are many fans of the robust emerald veggie, all of whom will be happy to know that after years of playing second fiddle to its cousins Swiss chard and spinach, beets—specifically, fermented ones—are about to have a major moment.
”Beets are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants,” says New York City-based nutritionist Brooke Alpert, founder of Be Nutritious. “They’re definitely a superfood.” Rich in antioxidants and calcium, iron, magnesium, and fiber they have a high concentration of vitamins A and C. They’re also filled with folate—essential for new cell growth. But beets are still a hard sell for some thanks to their “earthy” taste, which comes from a compound called geosmin, the same one that’s responsible for that wet soil scent in your garden after a rainstorm.
THE BEET GENERATION
Beta vulgaris, or the common beetroot, is a unique, densely-packed nutrient bomb that has sustained people for centuries. It wasn’t always a second-class citizen in the vegetable world; beets allegedly grew in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and have been considered an aphrodisiac in many cultures since ancient Rome. Frescoes of beets decorate the walls of the Lupanare brothel in Pompeii, and legend has it that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, ate beets to enhance her sex appeal. Why so sexy? Beets are a natural source of tryptophan and betaine, both substances that promote a feeling of well-being. They also contain high amounts of boron, a trace mineral that increases the level of sex hormones in the body.
Along with that lovin’ feeling, beets deliver a boost to athletic performance in a unique and unparalleled way: Betacyanin, which gives beets their rich red color, increases the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood by up to 400%. In studies, athletes who were given 70ml doses (about 1/3 cup) of raw beetroot juice before workouts had their resting blood pressure reduced by 2%. Professional divers were able to hold their breath 11% longer, and cyclists who drank a single larger serving of 500ml (about 2 cups) of beetroot juice were able to ride up to 20% longer. (To make beet juice at home, use a juicer or high-speed blender; trim and slice 2 beets; add a 1/2-inch piece of peeled ginger and 1/4 cup water to cut the sweetness.)
Most notably, the University of Southern California men’s basketball team incorporated shots of beetroot juice before games and practices, and within a year went from last place in the Pac-12 conference to reaching the NCAA tournament. Are beets one of the reasons? Andrew Coggan and Linda Peterson, assistant professors at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, would likely say yes. They studied the juice and found it increased maximum muscle power by about 6%. For a basketball player, that equates to a higher vertical leap.
YOU CAN’T BEET IT
So why aren’t we all chugging this wonder juice? Well, besides the polarizing flavor, the one drawback has always been sugar. In concentrated form, beets’ sugar content virtually outweighed their nutritional benefits.
That’s where fermentation comes in. Fermenting is the process of allowing the naturally present bacteria in food to start consuming or digesting the food, creating a new, slightly altered version that’s full of gut-healthy probiotics. “Fermenting brings out all the benefits of a food,” says Alpert. “Plus it adds probiotic benefits. So not only are you getting the antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals from beets, but now that they’re fermented, you also get probiotics.” And, unlike cooked vegetables that sometimes lose their nutritional value through heat, fermented vegetables are still raw.
With beets especially, this fermentation process has a double bonus of actually eating up a lot of the vegetable’s natural sugar as well as improving flavor. If you’re not crazy about the earthy taste, you may find that fermentation cuts it by adding a tangy, delicious sourness. Beets also become much easier to digest with fermentation, since the process partially breaks them down for you.
DIY fermentation is easy: Wash, trim and slice 3 beets and place in a large sterile Mason jar (or 2 medium Mason jars). Add 1 cup of sauerkraut juice, 1 tablespoon sea salt, some sprigs of fresh mint, and 2 cups of seltzer. Cover and let sit at room temperature for two days to ferment.
If fermenting on your own feels intimidating, Alpert says quick-pickling, in which foods are preserved in a brine or an acid, may not be as beneficial but it still has advantages. “I buy a lot of pickled vegetables for myself. The process still breaks down the food for you, so you can absorb the nutrients better.”
Another way to get your fermented beet on is to drink a beet kvass, Alpert says. Much like kombucha, beet kvass is a fermented probiotic drink with tons of benefits, both anecdotal (thicker hair, more energy, clearer skin) and scientifically proven (improved gut microbiota and metabolic activity). The flavor is pungent—addictive, in a sexy-ugly kind of way. (Because of its detoxifying properties, avoid drinking too much when first starting out as you could experience dizziness and nausea.)
“I wouldn’t recommend chugging this right before hitting the gym,” says Alpert. But if it’s part of your daily diet, the benefits will extend into your workout.
Want yet another option? Try this Creamy Beet With Dill Soup. It’s quick and easy, and perfect for a nourishing way to end the day.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ pounds raw beets, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 large onion, cut into large dice
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 pinch sugar
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled and thickly sliced
- 1 teaspoon toasted caraway seeds
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 cups low-sodium organic chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill
- 1 ½ cups half-and-half or whole milk
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Garnish: chopped hard-cooked egg and/or chopped parsley
- Heat oil over medium-high heat in large, deep sauté pan until simmering. Add beets, then onion; saute, stirring very little at first, then more frequently, until onion starts to turn golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add butter, sugar and garlic; continue cooking until all vegetables are a rich, spotty caramel color, about 10 minutes longer.
- Add caraway seeds and cayenne pepper; continue to saute until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute longer. Add broth; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered until beets are tender, about 10 minutes.
- Using an immersion blender or traditional blender, puree (adding fresh dill) until very smooth, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Return to pan; add enough half-and-half so the mixture is soup-like, yet thick enough to float garnish. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. Heat through, ladle into bowls, garnish and serve.