Updated: Apr 5, 2019
By Jenny Hammer
Stroll through a farmers’ market or local grocery this month and the rich colors of autumn will catch your eye--among them the deep reds, maroons, and golds of beetroots and the magenta and sea-green of their leaves. Beets are in season and can add earthy sweetness and culinary versatility to your meals. But while they are packed with flavor, their most important attribute is the nutritional support of your good health.
A member of the Chenopodiaceae family, the common garden beet (genus beta vulgaris) is related to amaranth, quinoa, spinach, and lambsquarters--nutritional powerhouses, all. Beets have a long history of being used as food and as medicine. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the leaves as a potherb. Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes from the 1st century A.D., mentioned beetroot in broths and salads. Hippocrates supposedly used the leaves of the beetroot to dress wounds, and others ate the roots to combat sluggish intestines, cure fevers, or as an aphrodisiac.
It wasn’t until the 16th century, however, that Europeans started consuming the root as a vegetable. Over time, farmers have selected the plant for specific traits, giving us the four major beet cultivars of today: the garden beet, the sugar beet, Swiss chard, and mangels (or the mangelwurzel, used as livestock fodder since the 1700s).
While the garden beet and Swiss chard are what we are most familiar with, sugar beets have been and continue to be an important crop even though you won’t find them in any local markets. Because they can contain up to 22% sucrose, sugar beets supply fifty-five percent of the sugar produced in the United States and 20-25% of the sugar produced worldwide. Cane sugar (think C&H of Crockett) makes up the remainder. Unlike sugar beets, however, red and golden garden beetroots haven’t been genetically modified. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop has been modified, to make it resistant to glyphosate, a.k.a. “RoundUp.” This may surprise you.