Love them or hate them, beets are earning a second look.
Body builders and endurance athletes are downing juice shots to boost performance. Chefs are stirring purées into antioxidant-rich chocolate desserts for a superfood double-play. Food manufacturers are making snacking healthy with dehydrated beet chips, single-serving, marinated beets and organic juices. And concentrated powders are sold as dietary supplements to boost endurance.
Beets also are being studied as a natural way to battle cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and the sluggishness that can come with age.
As awareness of their potential benefits grow, we have to ask: Are beets really healthy? Or is this just hype?
"It's a little bit of both," said Dana Hunnes, a senior dietician and adjunct assistant professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA. "The beet itself is super-healthy. Companies want to market that and take advantage of these incredibly healthy properties and make it faster or easier to consume them."
Beets are dense with nutrients, including potassium, betaine, magnesium, folate, and Vitamin C and a good dose of nitrates. Beets can also help reduce blood pressure and anemia, improve circulation and cognitive function. Studies have explored how beets may contribute to improved athletic performance by enhancing blood flow, which improves the delivery of fuel to muscles and the removal of byproducts such as lactic acid that can dull performance.
USC's basketball team, for example, using beet juice as a pre-workout supplement.
The catch? As with many superfoods, getting noticeable effects may require rather large servings or precise timing. A study on blood-flow disorders derived benefits from a two-cup serving of beet juice. Research indicates that athletes looking to exercise at low intensities for longer time periods are wise to ingest beets 2½ to three hours prior to exercise.
Those hefty serving sizes, and beets' earthy and sometimes metallic taste, may make a daily diet of beets daunting.
Naturally, the marketing push is well underway. You'll find the following at well-stocked stores: BeetElite, a powdered concentrate "sport endurance shot," which mixes with cold water and claims to deliver the nutrition of six beets at a time. Red Ace Organics' "shots" of beet-juice blends. And snack packs of smoky barbecue shredded beets and marinated baby beets made by Love Beets.
"There is a cachet to certain fruits and vegetables and people just know they are really good for you," said Scott Jensen, chief executive officer of Rhythm Superfoods, which makes crispy, crunchy beet chips, some with sea salt or cinnamon and coconut sugar.
The powerful flavor and color of beets means a little goes a long way, allowing manufacturers to capitalize on beets' health halo, though they may represent a fraction of the contents.
Their distinct flavor and color also has helped put beets on the radar of chefs, such as Patina's pastry chef Dianne Crame, who recently mixed two types of Valrhona chocolate, caramelized almonds, crème fraîche and beets to create a naturally colored red velvet cake.
"Surprisingly, beets and chocolate go really well together since they both have earthy flavors," Crame said.
That may be the way America learns, finally, to love beets.