Juicy. Buttery. Earthy. Sweet. It’s not hard to see why beets are becoming popular these days. They are making an appearance in everything from juices, flavored yogurts, energy bars, and sports drinks to the more savory pesto, pizza toppings, and even hummus. Beets have an “earthy” smell due to the organic compound geosmin, which also happens to be responsible for the smell the ground releases after a rain shower in May. Many people enjoy its down-to-earth goodness, but if you don’t, there are ways around it, and after reading this article, you will see that beets have too many merits to pass up. From nutritional powerhouse to ancient aphrodisiac to athletic performance enhancer, the beet truly is a gem.

Of course, beets have been around for quite a while. The ancestor of today’s beet is the sea beet, which still grows wild in coastal Mediterranean climates. It was mostly leaves back then, and it continued that way when domesticated about 6,000 years ago. Beetroots became popular in the Roman era, when they were used both as a health food and as an aphrodisiac. In fact, excavations of buildings that had been preserved under the ash from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 70 AD revealed bright red beets frescoed onto the walls of brothels. One potential explanation is the boron content of beets. Boron can raise human sex hormones like testosterone. Beets can also act to dilate blood vessels (see below), having a potential “Viagra-like” effect, among other health benefits.

Nutrition. Beets are at the top of the list of the healthiest most commonly eaten vegetables. Only kale, red peppers, artichokes, and red cabbage come in ahead. Beets have nine times the antioxidant content of a typical tomato, and fifty times that of orange carrots. Beet greens or leaves contain even more antioxidants than the roots, which is a great reason to save them for eating, too.

Beets contain betalain, a phytonutrient that gives it its characteristic red color. Betalain has anti-cancer properties; a test-tube experiment revealed that beetroot juice blocked the proliferation of cancer cells. They are also anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is at the root of many diseases, including heart disease. Beets can actually help prevent the formation of hard fatty plaques in the arteries.

Beets are a good source of Vitamin C, folate (a B vitamin), potassium, manganese, iron, copper, and fiber. Naturally sweet, they are a pleasing addition to more bitter foods, such as dark leafy greens. Despite their sweetness, they will not spike blood sugar, most likely due to their low starch content and good amounts of fiber.

Athletic Performance. Studies show that drinking beet juice reduces the amount of oxygen needed during physical activity. This translates into less effort for the same amount of work. One study revealed that those eating beets regularly for several days had faster running times. Other studies on cyclists showed an improvement in performance (an average of 2.8%) as well as faster racing times for those who drank beet juice before a competition. Interestingly, in 2012 a British Olympic athlete and gold medal-winner drank beet juice instead of Gatorade before his big winning day. Even for the less ambulatory, beet consumption can decrease the effort required to walk. Beets contain naturally occurring nitrates, which turn to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide relaxes and dilates blood vessels. This has the effect of lowering blood pressure as well as increasing blood flow to muscles.

At the market. When choosing beets, the darkest red varieties have the most health benefits (more than white, gold, and Chioggia beets). For the freshest ones, choose beets with their green tops still attached. The leaves should be dark green and perky; wilting or yellowing leaves are a sign of age. Bunching beets (small beets with leaves attached) are a local delicacy in springtime. This time of year, however, local beets will have their tops already cut off to improve storage. If time is short, canned beets are an option. They may lack in the flavor and color departments, but they are good nutrition-wise. Just make sure to avoid salt, sugar and additives.

At home. There are a myriad of ways to use beets at home. First, wash them thoroughly. Leave about an inch of stem and root. Do not peel or slice; this will help keep valuable nutrients from leaching out during cooking. If baking/roasting, you can either individually wrap them in foil or place in a baking pan as is. Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour for medium-sized beets. If you have little time, cut them into quarters instead and steam them. Once beets are cooled, peel the skins off.

Then what? Cooked beets are very versatile. They are delicious mixed with other root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes as a hearty side dish. Toss cooked sliced beets in a vinaigrette for a tangy treat, or grate some raw beets on top of a salad. Borscht is a refreshing cold beet soup. Pickle beets in vinegar, onions and spices. Ferment beets as you would any other vegetable. Cooked, pureed beets even make a delicious addition to chocolate cakes and brownies, adding moistness, a sweet flavor and, of course, nutrition.

Roasted Beets with Dill-Walnut Vinaigrette (from “Perfect Vegetables,” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine)

½ cup chopped walnuts
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. juice from 1 lemon
1 medium shallot, minced
1½ Tbsp. minced fresh dill
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Roasted beets
Place the walnuts in a skillet and toast over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they become fragrant, about 4 minutes.

Whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, shallot, dill, and oil together in a small bowl until thoroughly combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss the dressing, sliced beets, and walnuts together in a medium bowl. Serve immediately.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.