Going Beneath the Surface

Root vegetables

Food As Medicine

Going Beneath the Surface
Exploring the Delicious World of Root Vegetables

In the culinary world, among the plethora of vibrant produce, there is an overlooked yet essential category of vegetables – root vegetables. These treasures have a long history and an array of flavors, textures, and nutritional benefits waiting to be unearthed. From the sweetness of carrots to the earthy depth of beets, root vegetables have long been celebrated for their versatility and ability to provide dishes with a comforting warmth. Let’s explore the fascinating world of root vegetables, diving into their origins, culinary uses, and nutritional benefits that make them an indispensable part of our diet. 

Parsnips
Parsnips have been grown since ancient times. They are native to Europe but have spread throughout the world. In the United States, parsnips were the primary source of nutritional starch until potatoes became popular in the mid-1800s. They require a long growing season, and the root’s unique, sweet flavor appears only after a hard frost. Parsnips have become a favorite among cold-climate gardeners. Because they are one of the hardiest vegetables, they overwinter well.[1]

Beets
The beets we know and love today evolved from the sea beet, a wild seashore plant found in the Mediterranean and along the shores of Europe and North Africa. However, the sea beet was consumed mainly for its leaves rather than its roots. Since ancient times, beets have been used for dyes, teas, and medicinal properties. Beets have grown larger and sweeter throughout thousands of years of farming. Sugar beets gained popularity in the nineteenth century due to their high sugar content. As a result, they served as an alternative source of sugar. Around this period, they were also introduced to the United States.[2] [3] [4]

Turnips
Turnips are root vegetables from the cruciferous family. They have been cultivated for many years and are among the oldest known vegetables. They are native to both Europe and Asia. In ancient Rome, turnips were rarely consumed by the upper class and were left to poorer families. They were introduced to North America in 1609 and are now widely grown in home gardens and sold at farmer’s markets and supermarkets. The most common turnip is ivory or white with a distinctive purple ring around the stem. This pigmentation develops from sun exposure during the final stage of growth.[5]

Rutabaga
Rutabagas are considered a variety of turnip in many locations. They are commonly referred to as turnips, however they are a hybrid between a turnip and a cabbage. As a result, they are also classified as cruciferous vegetables. Rutabagas are larger, rougher in texture, and sweeter than turnips. Rutabagas are more common in Scandinavia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom because they thrive in colder climates. Rutabagas are also known as Swedes, Neeps, or Swedish Turnips.[1]

Now that we’ve learned about several varieties of root vegetables, let’s review some of their nutritional benefits. As previously stated, turnips and rutabaga are both members of the cruciferous family vegetable family. One significant benefit of cruciferous vegetables is the glucosinolates they contain. These compounds are phytochemicals, and they are responsible for the bitter taste and strong odor that members of this vegetable class are often known for. When plant tissue is chewed or chopped, enzymes break down the glucosinolates into metabolites known as isothiocyanates. These metabolites provide various health benefits, including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer prevention, muscle and bone health, and brain health. One of the most common isothiocyanates is sulforaphane, which possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. It has been demonstrated to help prevent and treat multiple types of cancers. One caution is that cooking at high temperatures and for long periods of time can denature the enzyme that produces the beneficial metabolites. As a result, steaming is the preferred cooking method to maximize the amount of glucosinolate and its metabolites.[2]

Another health benefit of the root vegetable family is specific to beets. They are very high in nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide within the body. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, which reduces blood pressure and improves heart health. Also, by dilating blood vessels, beets help enhance circulation to multiple areas of your body, including your muscles and brain, boosting exercise performance.[3] [4]

In summary, root vegetables have a fascinating history and offer valuable nutrition to our diets. From ancient civilizations to modern meals, these humble plants have provided sustenance and flavor for generations. Incorporating them into our diets adds variety to our meals and enhances our health with their abundant vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many of the root vegetables can be prepared in multiple different ways. If you’re looking for ideas, keep it simple and try the recipe below. Let’s continue to explore and enjoy the diverse world of root vegetables for their taste and nutritional benefits.

Roasted Root Vegetable Medley – Forks Over Knives


[1] The parsnip – A little history and some growing instructions. Harvesting History. (2017, January 31). https://harvesting-history.com/the-parsnip/
[2] History of the beet. Just Beet It. (n.d.). https://www.justbeetit.com/history-of-the-beet
[3] Levinson, J. (2020, February). Beets – the history, myriad uses, and health benefits of these beloved roots. Today’s Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0220p26.shtml
[4] Ajmera, R. (2023, June 29). The 13 healthiest root vegetables. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/root-vegetables#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6
[5] Turnips. Specialty Produce. (n.d.). https://specialtyproduce.com/produce/Turnips_4032.php
[6] What’s a rutabaga? The Land Connection. (2019, December 5). https://www.thelandconnection.org/blog/whats-a-rutabaga/
[7] Connolly EL, Sim M, Travica N, Marx W, Beasy G, Lynch GS, Bondonno CP, Lewis JR, Hodgson JM, Blekkenhorst LC. Glucosinolates From Cruciferous Vegetables and Their Potential Role in Chronic Disease: Investigating the Preclinical and Clinical Evidence. Front Pharmacol. 2021 Oct 26; 12:767975. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2021.767975. PMID: 34764875; PMCID: PMC8575925.
[8] Levinson, J. (2020, February). Beets – the history, myriad uses, and health benefits of these beloved roots. Today’s Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0220p26.shtml
[9] Ajmera, R. (2023, June 29). The 13 healthiest root vegetables. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/root-vegetables#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6

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