Are You Excited About Beets?

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a photograph showing several beets on a cutting boardBeets are closely related to the fodder beet, sugar beet, and Swiss chard, all in the Amaranth family, Amaranthaceae. The National Garden Bureau has named beets the Vegetable of 2018, which means at least some of us will be planting and eating more of them.

Having trouble with your enthusiasm?

Beets fight cancer, help prevent asthma and allergies, reduce blood pressure just as well as drugs, influence your risk of depression, boost beneficial brown fat that helps keep us lean, and may help babies develop in the womb.

Take all those points and connect the dots!

But taking that evidence beyond the brain, into the kitchen, and “down the hatch” seems like quite another matter, doesn’t it?

beets and carrots for sale at a marketCan you say “New Nordic Diet” . . . as in “high in root vegetables”? Can you also consider that the states with the lowest rates of fruit and vegetable consumption have the highest rates of obesity? Would you dare to say “clean living“?

Oh, but indulgence is not merely the source of the problem here. It can also help guide us toward a solution. A recent study about language in labeling showed that indulgence matters when it comes to food we select. That is, we’re far more likely to eat “dynamite, tangy chili- and lime-seasoned beets” than “high-antioxidant beets,” even though those sound like they’re good for us. And would most of us go for beets on their own? Booo-ringgggg!!!!!

Jagiellonian tapestry from Brussels now in the Wawel Castle, Kraków (1550s, unknown maker) showing a female figure representing Abundance with a sickle and cornucopia, flanked by baskets and antithetic putti holding leaves, flowers, fruits, and vegetables
“Abundance is a blessing to the wise;
The use of riches in discretion lies
Extremes of fortune are true wisdom’s test,
and he’s of men most wise who bears them best.”
Abundance with a sickle and cornucopia, flanked by baskets and antithetic putti holding leaves, flowers, fruits, and vegetables (1550s, unknown maker)
detail, Jagiellonian tapestry from Brussels now in the Wawel Castle, Kraków

Now that you realize how healthy beets are and how to make them more appealing, let’s explore some of the fascinating background of this vegetable people have been growing for thousands of years.

In ancient times, beets were possibly used as a medicine and cosmetic as much as for food, and we’re fairly certain they were grown for their leaves as much as their roots, that is, some references are likely to the type we call chard today. According to The Evolution of Crop Plants (1976), beets may have been cultivated in Mesopotamia as long ago as 8,000 years before the Common Era, but the earliest written reference is Assyrian and places them at the so-called Hanging Gardens of Babylon (make that Nineveh).

a cardboard box holds vegetables, mainly Swiss chardBeets could be tops or bottoms and do come in different colors. Whether we mean leafy greens, red roots, amber roots, or white roots, these distinctions just might have you recalling that famous line where Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and paraphrasing Gertrude Stein: a beet is a beet is a beet is a beet. We can re-conceive reality all we want, but first we have to face reality–and let me warn you, it is GRIM. The “good news” is . . .

it only involves 90% of us!

A study released in November by the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity showed that only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. We need to reverse the trend, perhaps by following the example of that famous American family, the Alcotts.

American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott in 1882, father of Anna Bronson, Louisa May, Elizabeth Sewall, and Abigail May Alcott
American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott in 1882, father of Anna Bronson, Louisa May, Elizabeth Sewall, and Abigail May Alcott

The Department of Agriculture has the Choose My Plate campaign to encourage healthy eating, but in other countries the problem is similar. Canada, with public policy and research increasingly tilted in favor of agribusiness, has the Eat Well Plate. The British Nutrition Foundation has the 5 A Day campaign. In Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand a web site called Veggycation has been “designed as a communication tool for spreading the word about the nutrition and health benefits of Australian-grown vegetables.”

The information is clearly out there . . . which leads to the question: Worldwide, who’s eating right?

a map of the world with question marks scattered aroundAccording to a large study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U. K. Medical Research Council, the countries with the healthiest diets are

1. Chad
2. Sierra Leone
3. Mali
4. Gambia
5. Uganda

There’s a point, but it’s not limited to one continent: global thinking is a big part of the solution. In fact, human health is robustly connected to planetary health. As David Tilman and Michael Clark put it,

diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases as type II diabetes and coronary heart disease.

The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great importance to our environment and public health.

Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food minces no words in communicating the urgency and power of the evidence:

What we eat greatly influences our personal health and the global environment. Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and in most regions. At the same time the food system is also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a major driver of climate change.

The microscopic influence of our diet is another aspect too important to ignore. A recent study showed that a broad range of microbial life lives in our stomach. The bacteria and fungi there and beyond matter since the stomach is the entrance to the rest of the digestive system and the microorganisms in our digestive tract help keep us healthy. And what does this have to do with beets?

Vegetables can work both ways, good and bad. Overall, our diet has a tremendous influence over our microscopic life inside and whether it keeps us well or makes us ill, from the beginning of our life to its end.

Geosmin and Food Chemistry

The chemical structure of geosmin, showing two linked benzene rings plus two methyl groups, one angled up, one pointed down, and an OH or hydroxy group at one juncture. The carbon atoms at each point in the rings are implied.
The chemical structure of geosmin, showing two linked benzene rings plus two methyl groups, one angled up, one pointed down, and an OH or hydroxy group at one juncture. The carbon atoms at each point in the rings are implied.

Beets are distinctly earthy and the primary source of that quality is a compound called geosmin. It’s produced by certain bacteria called Actinobacteria that live in the soil. Another similar compound is called methylisoborneol. Our sense of smell is so finely attuned to these that we can detect parts per billion. In fact, we can notice geosmin at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion (1,000,000,000,000).

This aerosol chemistry of microbial life and the infinitesimal numbers can make geosmin seem complicated, but it’s what makes the air smell good after a rain and what makes the soil smell good when we dig in it. Beyond root crops, you’ll find it in some cactus flowers, wine, cyanobacteria, and fish, too. Geosmin is responsible for the “muddy” smell found often in commercially-important freshwater fish such as carp and catfish. You may have noticed it accumulates in the fatty skin and dark muscle tissues. Since geosmin breaks down under acidic conditions, vinegar, lemon juice, and similar ingredients are often used in fish recipes to help reduce the potentially muddy flavor of the meat.

an assortment of cut fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupe, lemon, and beetsIf the earthy aspect of beets puts you off them, consider combining them with orange, lemon, or lime juice, ginger, vinegar, or tomato sauce. Some people really like them diced and roasted in coconut oil. You can also embrace the earthy flavor of beets, combining them with lentils or other legumes, roasted nuts, pomegranate seeds, shellfish, pepper, curry, and other “earthy” ingredients.

Or you could combine them with ground beef . . .

Beets in Fast Food: The Kiwiburger

a delicious-looking hamburger loaded with vegetablesMost people wouldn’t think to associate root vegetables beyond onion with fast food, but the traditional hamburger in New Zealand included a slice of beet and a fried egg. These ingredients gradually disappeared after the introduction of franchise McDonald’s to the New Zealand market in 1976. In the late 1980s, franchisee Bryan Old tried reintroducing the traditional condiments at the five McDonald’s restaurants he owned around Hamilton. The new/old menu item proved so popular it was adopted nationwide in 1991 and tried in Australia without the egg under the name McOz.

The domestic advertising for the KiwiBurger had a song that was a list of patriotic Kiwiana with lyrics that begin “Kiwis love . . . ” and here is the relevant portion:

Gum boots, Ponga shoots,
Floppy hats, Kiwifruits,
Beetroot, Buzzy bees,
Moggy cats, Cabbage trees,

The list is a quite botanically rich assortment, which tells something about the culture. There are 46 items in all, and they were printed on the box the burger came in. It’s also worth adding that this humble slice of beet was often branded: Wattie’s beetroot, named for the ubiquitous food processing company founded by James Wattie in 1934 that has since become–believe it or not–part of Berkshire Hathaway.

“Oh, what a tangled path we weave, when first we practice to inform!” Sir Walter Scott helps sum and survey all we’ve covered about beets so far, but let me leave you with this.

a large assortment of vegetables against a black backgroundOne of the most powerful reasons to eat more fruits and vegetables came from a 2015 study which found that eating fruits and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life.

There is growing evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is related to greater happiness, life satisfaction, and positive affect. These associations are not entirely explained by demographic or health variables including socio-economic status, exercise, smoking, and body mass index. Recent experimental and daily diary research suggests that fruit and vegetable consumption may be a causal factor in promoting states of positive well-being. Research has examined the links between fruit and vegetable consumption and hedonic well-being–whether people feel good (vs. bad) and satisfied–but has not addressed links between fruit and vegetable consumption and eudaemonic well-being–whether people feel engaged and experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful. What does this study add? It provides the first evidence that eating fruits and vegetables is related to greater eudaemonic well-being in a naturalistic setting. Eating fruits and vegetables was also related to greater self-reported curiosity and creativity. Fruit and vegetable consumption may underlie a broad range of experiences that signal flourishing.

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