Beet is a member of family Chenopodiaceae and is scientifically known as Beta vulgaris. A number of cultivated species are known but the most popular one is the red or purple variety also known by the tag garden beet or beet root. Other cultivated varieties include the leafy vegetables like the chard and spinach beet. Sugar beet is also very popular as it is widely used in the production of table sugar and mangelwurzel which a fodder crop. Three subspecies are typically known at present. All these varieties are widely distributed along the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coast of Europe, the Near East, and India.
Cultivation of beet began in the second millennium BC. It was cultivated somewhere in the Mediterranean and by 8th century it got spread in Babylonia and then from there it reached China in 850 AD. According to Aristotle and Theophrastus evidence suggests that beet was under cultivation much before the introduction of spinach. Beta vulgaris is a biennial, rarely perennial herb. The stem is leafy measuring about 1-2 cm in height. Leaves are heart shaped measuring 5-20 cm in length. Flowers are produced in dense spikes. Each flower is very small about 3-5 mm in diameter with five petals. The flowers may be green or reddish and are pollinated by the agency of wind. The fruits are borne in a cluster of hard nutlets.
Spinach beet leaves are eaten as pot herb. The leaves of the garden beet are also consumed like that of the spinach beet leaves. The leaves of the Swiss chard are consumed in boiled form. In some parts of Africa, the whole leaves as well as the midribs of the beet plants are used in making a particular type of dish. The leaves and stems of the young plants are often steamed and consumed while the older leaves are fried and they give the flavor exactly like that of the taro leaves. The deep red roots of the garden beet are either boiled or are eaten in the form of salad and also cooked in oil and vinegar is added to increase the flavor. Commercially they are generally processed in boiled form or in the form of pickles. In Eastern Europe beet soup known as cold borsch is a very popular dish. The yellow coloured garden beets are also grown to be used as a kitchen vegetable.
Beetroot can be peeled, steamed and then boiled and eaten warm with butter as a delicacy. It can be pickled, cooked and eaten cold as a condiment or may be eaten raw as salad. Pickled beetroot is a popular traditional dish of South America. Pickled beetroot is also served along with hamburgers in New Zealand and Australia. Betanins obtained from the beetroot are used as food colourants. Beet pulp is fed to horses which are allergic to hay. Beetroot is also used in the preparation of wine. Consumption of beet results in the production of pink urine in some individuals. The roots and leaves of beet are a part of folk medicine and are used to treat a number of health problems. Ancient Romans used beetroots to cure fever and constipation. The red pigment betanin present in the roots of the red beets is also against oxidative stress by the Europeans since a long time. All parts of the beet plant contain oxalic acid. Beet greens and Swiss chard both are considered to contain high levels of oxalate and are responsible for the formation of stones in the kidney.
Varieties with large and brightly coloured beets are often grown for decorative purposes. Beets are also used as food by the larvae of many lepidopteran insects. Beets are cultivated for fodder, leafy or root vegetables and for sugars. They are also known by the common name blood turnip. The earthy taste of beetroots is due the presence of geosmin but scientists still don't know whether the beet plant produces this compound on its own or it extracts it from the symbiotic soil bacteria. Beets are one of the most boron intensive crops as boron deficiency results in the development of a disease known as heart rot.
The red colour of the beetroot is due to the presence of betalain pigment which is very much different from that of anthocyanins as present in the red cabbage. Other pigments present in beetroot are indicaxanthin and vulgaxanthins. Indicaxanthin is a very potent antioxidant for thalassemia as well as it prevents the breakdown of vitamin E. Betacyanin present in beetroots is responsible for the production of pink urine in some individuals who are unable to break it. This condition is known as beeturia. These pigments are present in the cell vacuoles and the cells are very weak and may leak the pigments upon exposure to sunlight or when heated or cut.