From its humble beginnings around the Mediterranean, the table beet (beta vulgaris) has spread to all continents of the world, although information on Antarctica is surprisingly hard to come by… Historically, beets have been consumed in many ways: medicinally in ancient Rome, fresh (both the greens and the roots) in salads, made into soups (think borscht), pickled slices and shreds to name just a few. In some parts of the world, it is a menu staple. Today, beets are popular as a processed product sold in stores or as fresh greens and roots.
Yes, sugar beets, a rough, white cone-shaped relative, are of the same family but are mostly grown commercially for sugar production since sugar beets require much less water to produce than sugar cane.
Beets are high in fiber, vitamins A and C and have more iron than most vegetables. They are also rich in antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid. A beet’s red color comes from an antioxidant called betalain, which was used as an ingredient in makeup that produced the ‘red as a beet’ coloring and saying. Betalain is an excellent source of red color pigment and can be used as natural dyes or food coloring agents.
Today, beet juice is being marketed as a natural energy drink, powders are encapsulated as nutritional enhancements and slices are being dried as chips. More conservative approaches are to roast the beet or thinly slice it in a fresh beet salad. Baby beet leaves have gained popularity as a salad green in recent years. Several varieties are produced specifically for the baby leaf market, such as Fresh Pak and Fresh Start. As a superfood, beets are gaining popularity with all segments of the market. Merlin is a hybrid variety that is high in sugar content (12-15% brix) and excellent in fresh salads or juiced.