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Professor upbeat about unappreciated root crop

December 10, 2002 By Michael Penn

Tom Robbins once wrote that stories about beets lead inevitably to the devil. These days it’s probably more true that stories about beets lead inevitably to Irwin Goldman.

Goldman, an affable associate professor of horticulture is no Prince of Darkness. But he does know a lot about beets. As part of his faculty research, he grows beets, breeds beets and studies beets. Heck, he even eats beets.

And, as far as anyone can tell, no other professor in the United States is working with the much-maligned vegetable (at least not the humanly edible version of it). “There are a few people in private industry,” Goldman says. “But,” he adds somewhat sheepishly, “I do have the only publicly supported table beet research program in the country.”

Few vegetables have been as picked at and picked over, as picked on and ruthlessly pickled, as the beet. Beets give liver and Brussels sprouts a run for their money as the food most reviled by kids. Not many adults like them, either.

As a food crop, beets don’t even make the list of 133 commodities tracked by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Goldman estimates that table beets — the variety grown for human consumption, as opposed to those grown for animal fodder or sugar processing — are grown on only about 8,000 acres of land in the United States, an area that could fit inside the boundaries of Lake Mendota. Figs (14,000 acres), turnips (11,500), radishes (14,600) and macadamia nuts (17,800) are all more widely cultivated. About two-thirds of that paltry beet crop ends up processed, ultimately to appear in cans and jars.

Beets haven’t always had such a sorry lot. It’s believed that ancient Greeks first cultivated wild beets; some historians relate anecdotes about Greeks offering beet greens to the god Apollo on a silver platter at the temple of Delphi. For centuries, beets gave sustenance to farm animals and farmers as they spread throughout Europe, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the continent.

During Napoleonic times, France, while locked in war with England in 1812, was shut off from overseas sugar imports. Napoleon issued a challenge to French scientists to come up with a new way to produce the sweet stuff. They turned to the forgotten work of a French botanist, who, 200 years earlier, had derived a sticky, sweet syrup from beets. Now, all but a very few beets grown in the United States are destined to become sugar, not entr≥es.

A little more than a century later, a UW–Madison professor named Warren Gabelman turned his academic attention to the vegetable, forming UW’s beet lab in 1949. Now an emeritus professor of horticulture, he had been working on hybrid crops, which in post-World War II America were just starting to make their way onto the farm. Corn hybrids were doing wonders, increasing yields and profits for farmers, and Gabelman imagined that they would have the same advantages for other crops. He selected three that he thought might be valuable to Wisconsin farmers — carrots, onions and beets. Influencing his choice was the fact that Wisconsin already had a large canning industry, and beets were grown by many farmers who fed those factories with fresh produce. It’s still true today that no state cans more beets than Wisconsin.

The lab thrived, and Gabelman succeeded in releasing a series of commercially viable hybrids. One of the varieties — named, appropriately enough, Big Red — gave rise to the type of beet most widely grown around the world today. In fact, since virtually every table beet derives from some kind of hybrid, and since for decades Gabelman’s lab was the only one making hybrids, you could say every beet, everywhere, has Wisconsin parentage. Even exotic varieties, such as new golden beets, have a Badger connection.

After Gabelman retired in 1991, researcher D. Nicholas Breitbach, who has worked with the lab for more than three decades, kept things going until Irwin Goldman arrived two years later. Goldman carried on the breeding work and launched new inquiries into the mystery of the beet. He now maintains beet plots at five farms around the state, and he and his graduate students analyze each new hybrid.

“It’s interesting — here we are with all the tools of modern science,” Goldman says, “and we still don’t really know what happens when you eat something as basic as a beet.”

In 1997, Goldman was the first researcher to quantify folic acid in red beets, demonstrating that breeding and harvesting can increase amounts of the valuable nutrient, which is found in beet greens and their roots. He has also helped show that the pigment of a red beet, betalain, is rich in the antioxidants that battle the effects of aging.

Goldman didn’t set out to become an ambassador of beets; he did his doctoral work on pea breeding. But he was born to the job, if for no other reason than for the simple fact that he liked beets even before he studied them.

Beets, admittedly, are an acquired taste. Their high sucrose content makes them powerfully sweet, but that sweetness comes with an earthy bite — a soil-like flavor caused by concentrations of geosmins, chemicals that leech into beets from the soil. You can find the same chemical influences in spinach (a close relative of beets) or some types of corn. Fans love that flavor, and extol its virtues of solidity and connectedness to the earth. Detractors say beets just taste like dirt.

There’s also the bleeding. Red beets (there are gold and even candy-striped beets, as well) contain reservoirs of inky pigment.

And let’s not forget the coolness deficit. The beet is often portrayed as a relic of a bygone era of huddled masses and winter stews. “They’re perceived as old-fashioned,” Goldman says.

Even some of the students who work in Goldman’s lab don’t eat beets. He tries to win them over, teaching them how to get past their canned-based beet-phobia and showing them how to roast beets in the oven, which he says is the best way to prepare them.

Yet, there are signs that beet perceptions are coming around. A staple of ethnic foods and salads for years, beets are making a comeback as a nutritious spike of flavor for many dishes. Saveur magazine has done a full-color spread. NBC’s “Today Show” recently featured a beet bruschetta. And at Madison restaurant L’Etoile — where proprietor Odessa Piper is described as a “beet queen” — the frequently changing menu often features beets prominently.

“Beets are very hot right now,” says John Navazio, a beet breeder and manager of Seed Movement, a seed company in Iowa City. “They fly under the radar. The mainstream population doesn’t necessarily eat beets. But there is a significant subset of Americans who really embrace them.”

Suddenly, Goldman is hip — and that’s fine with him. “Beets are a rare treasure,” he says, “and nothing makes me happier than being able to tell people about them.”

Tags: research