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Red pigment gives beets unique health benefits

Who would have thought that beet borscht would turn out to be one of the most nutritious foods on a lunch menu, or that the pungent pickled beet on the condiment table was not only a colourful addition to the picnic plate but actually healthy? It's all true—and you may also lay to rest the much-cited myth that green beet tops far outdo the red root in nutritive value. While the greens are delicious in soups and salads and are rich in nutrients, it is the root that has captured the interest of research scientists in recent years, especially as discoveries are made about the unique health benefits of the red pigments that give beets its rich purple-red colour.

It has been known for a long time that the common beet we grow in our gardens is a good source of vitamins and minerals such as folate (a factor in new cell growth and thus important for pregnant women to ingest), vitamin C, manganese, potassium and iron, but a more recent discovery is that beets are a source of phytonutrients called betalains which provide significant antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support.

It is, indeed, the concentration of betalain, especially betacyanin that gives beets their beautiful deep-red colour, making them a feast for the eyes, particularly next to the dark green of romaine lettuce or fresh pea pods. Beets contain other pigments—ones that are yellowish in colour, for example—which provide health benefits, but betacyanins are dominant and thus worthy of attention for this column. (Swiss chard and red rhubarb also contain betalain pigments).

Destroy free radicals

A variety of vitamins, carotenoids (such as beta-carotene found in carrots for example) and other phytonutrients are antioxidants—that is, they destroy free radicals that have the potential for serious cell damage. Each type pf antioxidant, however, has unique properties. Beets, for example, provide antioxidant support in a different way than other antioxidant-rich vegetables since betalain in this case works in conjunction with vitamin C and manganese to offer, in particular, benefits for eye health and overall nerve tissue health.

It is also evident that the phytonutrients in beets including betalain function as anti-inflammatory compounds—especially in their ability to inhibit chronic unwanted inflammation when it comes to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that another nutrient found in beets known as betaine works together with choline (a B-complex vitamin) to prevent build-up of homocysteine, associated with inflammation and risk of cardiovascular problems.

It should be noted that the combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules in beets makes this food a likely candidate for the risk reduction of various types of cancer including colon, stomach, breast, prostate and testicular cancers. More large-scale human studies are needed to confirm this.

The betalain pigments in beets have repeatedly been shown to help in neutralizing toxins by making them sufficiently water-soluble for excretion in the urine. Unfortunately, a myriad of toxins of various types are found in the environment and in food we consume—and it is in our best interest to assist the body in getting rid of them by eating the right foods.

Go beyond borscht

Perhaps it's time to include more beets in your diet—summer is the perfect time to seek out the fresh young root vegetables at farmers' markets and grocery stores. I would encourage you to go beyond borscht (satisfying as it is) and explore other ways of serving beets. For example, grate them over a green salad or soup as a garnish, or cook, slice and marinate in vinaigrette. They are also delicious simply steamed and served with a bit of butter and sprinkled with dill. Do not overcook since betalains (the red pigment) leach out steadily as the cooking time increases—something that anyone who has ever worked with beets no doubt has noticed.

It should also be noted that beets contain a liquid that may be extracted with a juicer to produce a nutritious drink. Beet juice is also available as naturally sweet crystals which have been vacuum-dried for dehydration. The resulting crystals (available in health food stores) may be added to fruit smoothies or juices, soups and cereals or simply rehydrated with water for a refreshing drink that contains the goodness of the red beet.