Affordable, readily available and packed with nutrients and fiber, root vegetables
are enjoying a renaissance among health-conscious consumers in a down economy.
We humans have always been good at figuring out how to stay alive when times were tough. Many ancient cultures found salvation in hard times by cultivating tuberous roots, which helped save them from famine and sustained them during colder months. Some 4,000 years ago, root vegetables were important currency for travelers of the Silk Road (a trade route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean, northeast Africa and Europe), and were critical staples in areas where rice cultivation was impossible, according to Laura Kelley, author of the newly published The Silk Road Gourmet (I Universe).
But root vegetables are more than just sustenance. As the “storage bin” for a plant’s nutrients, they are health-promoting powerhouses. “Although each root vegetable has its own nutritional makeup, as a group they are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, potassium and antioxidants,” says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, a nutrition clinic coordinator at Bastyr University Center for Natural Health in Seattle. “In fact, potatoes are among the highest in potassium of any fruit or vegetable commonly eaten in this country, while orange root vegetables are an excellent source of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.”
Throw in a surprisingly vibrant range of colors, oft-discarded greens with nutrition and taste to rival the roots and nearly limitless culinary uses, and it becomes clear that each of these root vegetables is a buried treasure waiting to be unearthed and enjoyed.
Sweet and crisp, carrots contain some of the highest levels of beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A) available in a single food source. Also loaded with vitamin C and potassium, carrots offer their highest nutritional value when lightly cooked because the outer fiber breaks down to enable easier nutrient absorption.
Kitchen Notes: With the highest levels of beta-carotene and minerals located just under the skin’s surface, unpeeled carrots will yield the most nutrition. Store them away from apples and pears, which release gases that can cause carrots to become bitter.
Varieties: Carrot varieties literally range from A to Z (Akaroa Long Red to Zino). While we’re most familiar with bright orange carrots, wild carrots feature colors from pale tan to deep purple.
This colorful root contains the highest sugar content of all vegetables and is packed with vitamins A, B and C, along with potassium and a spectrum of other minerals. Beets are also considered blood cleansers and builders.
Kitchen Notes: Boiling cause nutrient loss, so steam beets in their skins. Raw beets have a crunchy texture that becomes soft and buttery when they are cooked. Beet greens are often discarded, but they too contain abundant nutrients and rich flavor.
Varieties: Commonly a reddish-purple color, other beet varieties are white, golden yellow or even rainbow-colored.
Top-listed when it comes to health-promoting phytochemicals, turnip roots and greens are loaded with vitamins A and C, as well as potassium and other minerals.
Kitchen Notes: The smaller the turnip, the sweeter the taste. Commonly boiled or mashed, turnips can also be eaten raw in salads.
Varieties: Most turnips are a creamy white and can be purple-tipped, red-skinned, pearl white, yellow-golden or green—depending upon how the sunlight hits them.
Parsnips look like carrots without the orange coloring. Among the highest-ranked veggies for folate, vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber and various trace minerals, parsnips are also very low in cholesterol and saturated fat.
Kitchen Notes: One of the most versatile root vegetables, parsnips can be served raw or cooked (commonly roasted), and feature a mild, nutty flavor. Remove parsnip greens first to preserve moisture and store them cold.
Varieties: Generally similar in color and shape, parsnips are typically pale yellow or ivory. The most popular and available is the All-American, a light-fleshed parsnip with a tender core.
SWEET POTATOES AND YAMS
Sweet potatoes and yams are packed with vitamins A and C, and also contain potassium, manganese and other essential trace minerals. Morrow recommends yams for children who gravitate to their sweet taste, explaining, “Vitamin A found in yams is important for growth and development; it helps with gene transcription (reading DNA), helps activate hormones like thyroid and growth hormone, helps regulate the cells of the immune system, and of course, helps promote healthy vision.”
Kitchen Notes: The skins are completely edible and possess three times more antioxidant power than the flesh. Don’t refrigerate them, though; cold temperature negatively alters taste.
Varieties: Sweet potatoes and yams come in many colors: ivory, orange, yellow or purple flesh, with white, pink or brownish-black skins. These roots, while similar in appearance, are members of different plant families; adding to the confusion is the existence of two varieties of sweet potato, yellow and orange. Most “yams” sold in the US are actually orange sweets, which have moister, sweeter flesh than the drier, starchier yams.
With a pungent, peppery flavor and crisp texture, radishes are an ideal snacking food. High in folate, vitamin C and calcium, and featuring an impressive array of minerals, radishes are packed with nutrition; radishes’ greens contain about six times the amount of vitamin C found in the root.
Kitchen Notes: Radishes’ flavor becomes milder and sweeter when cooked, but cook only lightly to preserve the enzymes and vitamins inside. Consider incorporating radish greens into salads.
Varieties: Radishes come in white, black, purple, rose and lavender; there are even multi-colored varieties.
Minus fried or heavily buttered versions, we should forget the potato’s starch-only image and dig on its role in healthy eating. Research shows that as many as 60 different kinds of phytochemicals and vitamins reside in the skins and flesh of 100 wild and commercially grown potatoes (Agricultural Research Fall 07).
Kitchen Notes: To lower potatoes’ glycemic load (the rate at which a food increases blood sugar), Morrow recommends small portions—on the order of one or two small red, yellow or purple potatoes per person—cooked “al dente” and eaten whole with the skin along with some protein and fat. Look for organically grown potatoes, since chemical pesticides can negate the health benefits of their skins.
Varieties: Potatoes have practically limitless varieties, colors, shapes and sizes, but the most common types are Russet, Long White and Round Red or Round White.