Many of our grandmothers will have cooked us beetroot borscht, which is delicious eaten hot or cold. My own granny also used to add chopped beetroot to salads and mix it up with herring.
Ashkenazi cuisine does not have a healthy reputation, but in this case it seems that our ancestors had unintentionally stumbled upon a superfood. The humble beetroot has recently been credited with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, inhibiting cancer cells and helping to boost the immune system and energy levels.
During the last month or two, scientists at University College London and the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University in London have reported some interesting results concerning the benefits of beetroot in the diet.
These findings were published in Hypertension, the journal of the American Heart Association. The researchers found that eating beetroot generally boosts the immune system, useful for the approaching winter months. It also improves cardiovascular health and significantly reduces blood pressure and incidence of strokes.
Patients given 500ml of beetroot juice showed a lowering of blood pressure within one hour of drinking the juice - and an even greater reduction after three or four hours. Scientists believe it is the nitrates in beetroot that have this effect. Amrita Ahluwalia, Professor of Vascular Biology at the William Harvey Research Institute, said: "We showed that beetroot and nitrate capsules are equally effective in lowering blood pressure indicating that it is the nitrate content of beetroot juice that underlies its potential to reduce blood pressure."
High blood pressure affects about one in five of us in the UK and may lead to heart disease, strokes and kidney disease. As the recession bites, many of us may be working longer hours and feeling increasingly stressed owing to the pressures of staying financially afloat and keeping one's job, and this can lead to an increase of blood pressure.
Not all of us have the time and energy to prepare borscht after a long day at the office, but those who like the taste could add a glass of beetroot juice to their diet.
The scientists concluded that nitrates naturally found in beetroot produce a gas known as nitric oxide in the blood which helps to open and relax blood vessels and arteries and lowers blood pressure, thus decreasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.
Another useful effect discovered recently by scientists was that those who drank beetroot juice reported boosted energy levels after exercising. Scientists from the University of Exeter and Peninsula Medical School found that by drinking a glass of beetroot juice every day for a week, young men were able to increase their energy levels by up to 16 per cent.
Professor Andy Jones, who is an advisor to athlete Paula Radcliffe, stated: "We were amazed by the effects of beetroot juice on oxygen uptake because these effects cannot be achieved by any other known means, including training." No wonder that the Romans considered beetroot an aphrodisiac, while the pagans regarded it as a symbol of love.
Beetroot is packed with antioxidants and contains iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, vitamin B and betaine. It has an effect on the level of homocysteine that can harm blood vessels and cause heart disease and strokes. Beetroot is also rich in folic acid, or vitamin B9, which the body uses to repair its DNA. Studies on mice have revealed that betacyanin, which gives beetroot its dark red colour, may combat the formation of cancer forming compounds called nitrosamines.
Slimmers take note: beetroot is very low in fat and calories (about 40 calories per 100g). It is also low on the glycaemic index which is a measure of the effect of a substance on the production of insulin. Thus beetroot helps to stabilise blood glucose levels.
However, beware of a startling side effect - you may experience purple urine, known to the scientists as beeturia. This is completely harmless.