Beet root is a cultivated variety of the garden beet (Beta vulgaris), a member of the amaranth family closely related to leafy garden vegetables, such as chard. However, the red colored taproots contain much more sugar than other root vegetables, a fact that led to the development of the sugar beet, a subspecies grown commercially to facilitate the production of table sugar.

In general, the beet and all of its subspecies have long been cultivated for culinary purposes. In fact, the burned remains of beet roots were discovered at an excavation site dating back to the Neolithic period. Like other tubers, beet root can be peeled and cooked as a vegetable. The root may also be cooked and added to salads, or shredded and eaten raw. In the southern U.S., pickled beets are traditional summer fare, while in Europe the vegetable provides the base for the classic cold soup known as borscht. Pennsylvania Dutch cooks also fancy pickling beets, but typically reserve some of the liquid to make another traditional dish in which hard-boiled eggs soak up the boldly colored juice to make them—you guessed it--beet red.

Some cultures have regarded beet root as an aphrodisiac. In fact, the vegetable is depicted in many of the erotic frescoes and paintings that once graced the walls of The Lupanare in Pompeii, the oldest known brothel in the world. Although this fact alone is worthy of our fascination, it’s also interesting to note that there may be some science behind these representations beyond the salacious implication. Beet root is a rich source of boron, an element that is involved in steroid hormone metabolism. In other words, it affects estrogen and testosterone levels in the human body. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be a direct link between boron deficiency and infertility. While it’s unlikely that the ancient Romans were aware of this, they were clearly onto something.

Boron plays a role in other biological processes as well. Studies have shown that the mineral is necessary for adequate cognitive functioning, and deficiency may be related to the impairment of short and/or long-term memory. Other studies have shown that increasing intake of this element may improve symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Beet root also provides numerous other nutrients, including gamma-aminobutyric acid, beta-carotene, potassium, selenium, phosphorous, zinc, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamins B1 and B5. It is also high in fiber and iron. However, of particular interest is the component betaine, a nutrient involved in several biological processes due to its primary function of donating methyl molecules. This activity permits the body to synthesize carnitine and to limit the production of homocysteine, elevated levels of which are known to contribute to heart disease and stroke. Betaine is also involved in S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) utilization and regulating cellular reproduction and liver functioning.

The medical journal Hypertension, which is published by the American Heart Association, reported on the effectiveness of beet root juice in lowering blood pressure, as well as its anti-platelet properties in 2008. In fact, the study abstract cites that participants experienced a reduction in blood pressure within an hour of drinking 500 ml of beet juice, and an even more marked reduction was noted within three hours. In addition, the researchers continued to observe this effect for a full 24 hours.

Beet root owes its characteristic color to the presence of betanin, a flavonoid with antioxidant qualities. This natural pigment is commonly used to tint food, beverages, and cosmetics. In fact, it replaces Red Dye No. 2, which was banned after being linked to cancer in the 1970s. However, betanin is currently being investigated as a potential therapeutic agent in the prevention and treatment of cancer. This interest was sparked after researchers discovered that this substance inhibits tumor growth and may further play a role in deterring cellular proliferation and metastasis.

There are no known side effects or contraindications associated with beet root. As a dietary supplement, beet root powder may be mixed with water, tea, or juice. It may also be added to soups, stews, and other cooked foods. In terms of dosage, a little goes a long way: One teaspoon of beet root powder is roughly equal to consuming a whole beet.

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