Red Beet

From ornament to a source of well-being

Red beet (Beta vulgaris) is a biennial herbaceous plant of the Beta genus belonging to the Chenopodiaceae family. With stems that can reach 1-2 meters in height, they have 5-20 cm long heart-shaped leaves and small flowers, about 3-5 mm in diameter, in green or red, with five petals. Their tubers have the unmistakable and peculiar bright red color. Its natural pigment, betanin, is used in various sectors, from food to textiles. Although they belong to the same family, red beet should not be confused with sugar beet, which is white in color.

Red beet is native to the Mediterranean basin, and the first historical and archaeological traces precede 2000 B.C., when its cultivation began in North Africa, rapidly expanding to Greece and the Middle East. The oldest document on red beet is a Babylonian catalog from the 7th century B.C., but it was already widely used by the ancient Greeks, who called it téutlon, then transferring it to the Roman world. Initially used as an ornament, both the Greeks and Romans started consuming its leaves, discovering the excellent medicinal properties of the plant. Its importance and cultural significance, aided by the captivating intense red color, are found in the works of numerous historians, botanists, and naturalists of the time, including Theophrastus, Columella, and Pliny the Elder. With time, red beet began to spread through Spain and France, initially through monastery cultivations and later through farmers. Starting from the 13th century, it extended throughout Central Europe, and the Germanic populations started developing different varieties: the red beet cultivated in Italy today was introduced from Germany around the 15th century. The use of the plant’s roots for food purposes, which have now become the symbol of beets, dates back to the 17th century and is connected to the discovery of the sugar that can be extracted from it. In 1747, the Prussian chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf began to commercially produce sugar and opened the first factory in 1801 in Cunern, Poland.

During the Napoleonic wars in 1806, the importation of cane sugar was blocked, prompting the consumption of sugar extracted from beets. In 1811, some French scientists showed Napoleon some sugar loaves extracted from beets: ecstatic about the taste, he ordered its cultivation. Within a few years, more than 300 beet sugar factories were established all over Europe. Today, the beets used to obtain sugar are the white ones, while the red beet is used as a high-profile nutritional food in many areas of the world, thanks to its great climate adaptability.

In addition to being very tasty, red beets contain numerous nutrients that make them an ally for health and well-being. They have a particularly high content of potassium (300 mg/100 g), which acts as a blood pressure regulator and is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. The tuber keeps the cardiovascular system healthy: it contains folic acid and betaine, which, together, have the property of strengthening the capillary vessels. Among the vitamins, vitamin C is highly present, strengthening the immune system, and some from the B group, such as B1, B3, and B9 (folic acid), fundamental in every stage of life. The presence of betalains, powerful antioxidants that give the famous red color to beets, gives them important purifying and anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties. The latter aspect is described in various scientific studies, where it emerges that the tuber can slow the growth and development of tumor cells, particularly in cases of colon, breast, and prostate cancer. Finally, red beet is a natural remedy for depression, as it is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that stimulates the production of serotonin: the so-called “happiness hormonè”.

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