I grew up in a family with Eastern European roots, so borscht was a staple in our home and that of my grandmother.
For those not familiar with borscht it is reddish-purple in color with beetroot as its main ingredient and is usually consumed as a hot or cold beverage or soup. There are many variations depending on the European culture, but here in the United States the borscht found in jars on supermarket shelves is a simple recipe of water, beets, sugar, salt and citric acid. That is, if you can find it in your supermarket. You may have to search for it in health food stores, kosher supermarkets or have it made fresh at a juice bar.
But all that is about to change, and it is not about nostalgia or the rise in ethnic foods. It is about health.
The first step to dominating the juice category will be a marketing name change -- from borscht (with its obvious heavily ethnic sounding name) to plain old -- beet juice; to garner a more widespread appeal.
Next will come the heritage. The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet many of us currently eat on salads, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa, and grew wild along Asian and European coasts; their greens were used for food. It was not until the ancient Romans came along that beetroots themselves were cultivated for food.
And now for the real benefits. Today beets are known for their sugar content (e.g., sugar beets) and the few know about the real nutritional benefits of beets. Red beets and their juice are an excellent source of nutrition: a very good source of fiber, potassium, manganese, and folate; they are also a good source of vitamin C, zinc, copper, and iron. Beet juice typically is high in sodium, so look for the reduced sodium varieties.
Beets are also a rich source of polyphenols (the antioxidants we've been hearing so much about in dark purple vegetables that among other benefits can help prevent cardiovascular disease), nitrates and betalains a potent antioxidant thought to quench free radicals and reverse their damage. Beet juice, according to research conducted at Wake Forest University, is shown to improve blood flow to the brain in healthy elderly people.
And just what does beet juice taste like? I have to be honest and tell you that when I was growing up neither my mom nor I would drink it. But now, as we discover the extraordinary health benefits it is becoming part of my regular selection of beverages. The taste will take some getting used to, so my recommendation is to mix with a little orange or apple juice to make it more palatable for those trying it for the first time. Also do keep in mind that beets are a potent liver food and drinking beet juice on an empty stomach can cause some discomfort. Which is why many Europeans mixed it with sour cream or plain yogurt.
One word of caution, beets are used as a natural food coloring, and for good reason. One sip and it will turn your mouth red -- temporarily.