I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t like beets. I know they are packed with nutrients (including nitrates), may improve cardiovascular health, and may even increase athletic performance by boosting nitric oxide levels, but I’ve never enjoyed eating beets. So when I reached out to CTS Athlete and renowned chef Matthew Accarrino, from SPQR in San Francisco, with a request for a recipe that featured an ingredient that was in season in late summer and fall, I was legitimately sad when he came back with beets. Now, if I’m going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when it come to making beets taste good, it’s Matt, so I gave his Beet Pesto a try.
The first thing you need to know about making beet pesto is that it’s stunningly easy. Peel and cut up the beets, cook in foil packet, throw everything in a food processor, hit the button. When it’s done you have a beautiful red pesto with a slightly coarse texture, not as smooth as a hummus, and a rich flavor highlighted by a kick of garlic. If you want to mellow out that garlic kick, Matthew pointed out you do so by using roasted garlic instead of raw. I mixed it into pasta for dinner, and ate the rest with cut up vegetables over the next few days.
Why Should Normal People Eat Beets?
Beets are low in calories and high in fiber, which helps make them filling and can contribute to weight management goals. They are a good source of minerals, especially potassium, magnesium, manganese, and (to a lesser extent) iron. And while those attributes are good, they are not all that unique. From a health perspective what draws people to beets is the potential connection to improved cardiovascular health.
Beets are a very good source of folate (Vitamin B9), and people who consume diets rich in folate from green leafy vegetables or foods fortified with folic acid have lower levels of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine levels are associated with heart disease, but research is divided on whether increased homocysteine levels actually increase the risk of heart and artery disease. Either way, there is no apparent benefit to elevated homocysteine levels, so keep eating foods rich in B Vitamins for their wide-ranging benefits, including lower homocysteine levels!
Why Should Athletes Consume Beets?
Inorganic nitrates are the biggest reason athletes are drawn to beets. When you eat foods rich in inorganic nitrate your body converts it to nitric oxide (NO), which acts as a powerful vasodilator. (There is also organic nitrate, which is used in drugs like nitroglycerin (for angina) to increase NO production and cause vasodilation.) Nitric oxide may also have a protective effect on your entire cardiovascular system because it relaxes the smooth muscle of your blood vessels and may inhibit the development of atherosclerosis (stiffening of the arteries) and arterial plaques. Athletes are drawn to beets for the inorganic nitrate that increases nitric oxide production and leads to vasodilation, because vasodilation means increased blood flow and improved oxygen delivery to working muscles.
Raw Beets Vs. Cooked Beets?
To achieve the cardiovascular health benefits of consuming dietary nitrate, you can eat cooked or raw beets as well as getting dietary nitrate from other green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and lettuce. Cooking beets decreases the bioavailability of dietary nitrate from the food, meaning raw beets deliver more dietary nitrate. To potentially experience an ergogenic effect from dietary nitrate you have to consume about 5-7 mmol of dietary nitrate, which is difficult to achieve eating actual beets but is the amount found in about 500ml of beetroot juice made from raw beets. Concentrated beetroot juice shots and powders can further reduce the volume of fluid you have to consume.
Does Beet Juice Really Improve Endurance Performance?
The best answer is: Maybe. Studies have come down on both sides of that question, and a review from Andrew Jones (GSSI #156) suggests that performance improvements from consuming beetroot juice may depend on your level of fitness, your age, and how much you consume. Relatively untrained athletes appear to experience greater performance improvement than highly-trained athletes.
Middle-aged and older athletes may benefit more than younger athletes because nitric oxide availability may decrease with age and baseline vascular function may diminish with age. Put these findings together, and essentially it means that the further you are from optimal performance, the more you may achieve by increasing NO production and availability. But if you are younger and/or performing at a high level already it is less likely that beetroot juice will further improve performance, especially if you only consume it occasionally. High-level athletes may be able to achieve improved performance from consuming beetroot juice consistently over the period of at least a week.
Not everyone responds equally. Anecdotally from a CTS Coaching Roundtable discussion, results from beet juice supplementation vary widely and are highly individual. What seems clear, however, is that there is no detriment to either health or performance from consuming beets or beetroot juice, so there’s no harm in trying them. Even if improved athletic performance turns out to be due to the placebo effect, who cares? You still end up with improved performance just from training and consuming more vegetables!
Since the only practical way to consume enough dietary nitrate from beets to improve athletic performance is from drinking juice from raw beets, this isn’t a performance-enhancing recipe. But it’s still by far the best way I’ve ever eaten beets. The texture and flavor are wonderful, you can adjust the garlic to give it a mellow flavor or more bite, and the color is a beautiful and vibrant red. Add as a sauce for pasta or risotto, a dip for vegetables or crackers, or even a dressing for a chicken or grain salad. It keeps well and can be frozen, too, so the recipe is sized up to yield about 3 cups of pesto.
Red Beet Pesto, by Chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR
1 ¾ Cups roasted red beet, peeled and cut into 1” pieces, about 3-4 medium beets
One Garlic clove, crushed (mellow roasted garlic works well here)
1 Tsp Red Wine Vinegar
½ Cup slivered almonds, skinless, toasted
1/3 – ½ Cup Olive oil
1 ¼ Tsp Salt
Black Pepper (to personal preference)
1 Tbsp Parsley leaves (optional)
¼ Cup Parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated
To roast the beets:
- Create a foil packet (pull a length of foil and fold over in half, seal the edges by folding together in ¼” folds) you should have a pocket with an opening on one side.
- Place washed beets in a bowl. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add a teaspoon of red wine vinegar and transfer beets and juices to the foil packet. Seal and transfer to a baking tray. Transfer to a 350-degree oven and roast for 35 to 50 minutes. The beets are done when a skewer or paring knife inserted in the beets comes out easily. Let cool in the packet.
To make the pesto:
- Transfer the beets, garlic, almonds and olive oil to a food processor. Pulse to chop finely.
- Season with salt and pepper. If you are using parsley, pulse it in now until finely cut.
- Lastly, pulse in the cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt or a few drops of red wine vinegar if desired.
Nutrition Data (based on 3 Cup yield and 2 Tablespoon serving)
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