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Beta vulgaris, commonly known as beet or beetroot, is a flowering plant species in the family Chenopodiaceae. Several cultivars are valued around the world as edible root vegetables, fodder (mangel) and sugar-producing sugar beet.
Beta vulgaris is a herbaceous biennial or rarely perennial plant with leafy stems growing to 1-2 m tall. The leaves are heart-shaped, 5-20 cm long on wild plants (often much larger in cultivated plants). The flowers are produced in dense spikes, each flower very small, 3-5 mm diameter, green or tinged reddish, with five petals; they are wind-pollinated. The fruit is a cluster of hard nutlets.
Three subspecies are recognised:
Spinach beet leaves are eaten as pot herb. Young leaves of the garden beet are sometimes used similarly. The midribs of Swiss chard are eaten boiled while the whole leaf blades are eaten as spinach beet.
In Africa the whole leaf blades are usually prepared with the midribs as one dish.
The leaves and stems of young plants are steamed briefly and eaten as a vegetable; older leaves and stems are stir-fried and have a flavour resembling taro leaves.
The usually deep-red roots of garden beet are eaten boiled either as a cooked vegetable, or cold as a salad after cooking and adding oil and vinegar. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe beet soup, such as Cold borscht, is a popular dish. Yellow-coloured garden beets are grown on a very small scale for home consumption. 
Beetroot can be peeled, steamed, and then eaten warm with butter as a delicacy; cooked, pickled, and then eaten cold as a condiment; or peeled, shredded raw, and then eaten as a salad. It is also common in Australia and New Zealand for pickled beetroot to be consumed on a burger.
Garden beet juice is a popular health food. Betanins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colourants, e.g. to improve the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets and breakfast cereals.
The roots and leaves have medicinal uses.
The Romans used beetroot as a treatment for fevers and constipation, amongst other ailments. Apicius in De re coquinaria gives five recipes for soups to be given as a laxative, three of which feature the root of beet. Hippocrates advocated the use of beet leaves as binding for wounds.
Since Roman times, beetroot juice has been considered an aphrodisiac. It is a rich source of the mineral boron, which plays an important role in the production of human sex hormones. Field Marshall Montgomery is reputed to have exhorted his troops to 'take favours in the beetroot fields', a euphemism for visiting prostitutes.. From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of 'garlic-breath'.
Today the beetroot is still championed as a universal panacea. One of the most controversial examples is the official position of the South African Health Minister on the treatment of AIDS. Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Health Minister under Thabo Mbeki, has been nicknamed 'Dr. Beetroot' for promoting beets and other vegetables over antiretroviral AIDS medicines, which she considers toxic.
Forms with strikingly coloured, large leaves are grown as ornamentals.
Beets are used as a food plant by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species — see List of Lepidoptera that feed on beets.
Numerous cultivars have been selected and bred for several different characteristics. For example, the "earthy" taste of some beet cultivars comes from the presence of the chemical compound geosmin. Researchers have not yet answered whether beets produce geosmin themselves, or whether it is produced by symbiotic soil microbes living in the plant. Nevertheless, breeding programs can produce cultivars with low geosmin levels yielding flavours more acceptable to shoppers.
Major cultivar groups include:
Beta vulgaris roots contain significant amounts of vitamin C, whilst the leaves are an excellent source of vitamin A. They are also high in folate, soluble and insoluble dietary fibre and antioxidants. It is among the sweetest of vegetables, containing more sugar even than carrots or sweet corn. The content of sugar in beetroot is no more than 10%, in the sugar beet it is typically 15 to 20%.
An average sized cup (225.8 grams) of sliced beets will contain:
Beetroots are rich in the nutrient betaine. Betaine supplements, manufactured as a byproduct of sugar beet processing, are prescribed to lower potentially toxic levels of homocysteine (Hcy), a homologue of the naturally occurring amino acid cysteine, and can be harmful to blood vessels thereby contributing to the development of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
The colour of red beetroot is due to a variety of betalain pigments, unlike most other red plants, such as red cabbage, which contain anthocyanin pigments. The composition of different betalain pigments can vary, giving breeds of beetroot which are yellow or other colors in addition to the familiar deep red. Some of the betalains in beets are betanin, isobetanin, probetanin, and neobetanin (the red to violet ones are known collectively as betacyanin). Other pigments contained in beet are indicaxanthin and vulgaxanthins (yellow to orange pigments known as betaxanthins). Indicaxanthin has been shown as a powerful protective antioxidant for thalassemia, as well as prevents the breakdown of alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E).
The pigments are contained in cell vacuoles. Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will 'leak' when cut, heated, or when in contact with air or sunlight. This is why red beetroots leave a purple stain. Leaving the skin on when cooking, however, will maintain the integrity of the cells and therefore minimise leakage.
Although beet remains have been excavated in the Third dynasty Saqqara pyramid at Thebes, Egypt, and four charred beet fruits were found in the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands, it is difficult to determine whether these are domesticated or wild forms of B. vulgaris. However Zohary and Hopf note that beet is "linguistically well identified." They state the earliest written mention of the beet comes from 8th century BC Mesopotamia; the Greek Peripatetic Theophrastus later describes the beet as similar to the radish. "Roman and Jewish literary sources indicate that already in the 1st century BC domestic beet was represented in the Mediterranean basin by leafy forms (chard) and very probably also by beetroot cultivars."With the imposition of the blockade of the continent during the Napoleonic Wars there was an impetus to develop beet for their sugar content. Beet historians have long argued that the term “Bonbon de Naturel” or “Natures Candy” came into the popular vernacular during this time period.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Beet". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|