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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. All cultivated varieties except chard are Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris; chard is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla. Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima is the wild ancestor of both, commonly known as sea beet.
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%.
Beetroots are rich in the nutrient betaine. Betaine supplements, manufactured as a by-product of sugar beet processing, are prescribed to lower potentially toxic levels of homocysteine (Hcy), a homologue of the naturally occurring amino acid cysteine, which can be harmful to blood vessels thereby contributing to the development of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
In Africa the whole leaf blades are usually prepared with the midribs as one dish.
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. Pickled beets are a traditional food of the American South. It is also common in Australia and New Zealand for pickled beetroot to be consumed on a burger.
One increasingly popular preparation involves tossing peeled and diced beets with a small amount of oil and seasoning, then roasting in the oven until tender.
A traditional Pennyslvania German (US) dish is Red Beet Eggs. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the cooking liquid of pickled beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red color.
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.
Beet pulp is fed to horses that are in vigorous training or conditioning and to those that may be allergic to dust from hay.
Beetroot can also be used to make wine.
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.
Beet juice can help lower blood pressure. Research published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension showed drinking 500ml of beetroot juice a day led to a reduction in blood pressure within one hour. The reduction was more pronounced after three to four hours, and was measurable up to 24 hours after drinking the juice.
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 Marshal 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.
Beets are used as a food plant by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species.
Beets are cultivated for fodder (e.g. mangelwurzel), for sugar (the sugar beet), as a leaf vegetable (chard or "Bull's Blood"), or as a root vegetable ("beetroot", "table beet", or "garden beet"). Major root vegetable cultivars include:
"Blood Turnip" was once a common name for beet root cultivars for the garden. Examples include: Bastian's Blood Turnip, Dewing's Early Blood Turnip, Edmand Blood Turnip, and Will's Improved Blood Turnip.
The "earthy" taste of some beetroot cultivars comes from the presence of 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 consumers.
Beets are one of the most boron-intensive of modern crops, a dependency possibly introduced as an evolutionary response its pre-industrial ancestor's constant exposure to sea spray; on commercial farms, a 60 tonne per hectare (26.8 ton/acre) harvest requires 600 grams of elemental boron per hectare (8.6 ounces/acre) for growth. A lack of boron causes the meristem and the shoot to languish, eventually leading to heart rot.
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.
Modern sugar beets date back to mid-18th century Silesia, selected from fodder beets. Commercial interest grew after Andreas Marggraf proved that sugar could be extracted from beets that was the same as that produced from sugarcane. British blockades of cane sugar during the Napoleonic Wars stimulated the rapid grown of a European sugarbeet industry, with an expansion into North America starting in 1879 at a commercial farm in Alvarado, California.