Nutrition: Cancer fighting root vegetables

Posted on: 07 January 2013 by 50connect editorial

Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that fight cancer and help strengthen resistance to other health issues

Cruciferous vegetablesRoot vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips, which are still at their peak, make perfect candidates for winter dishes, releasing rich, sweet flavours and aromas as they roast. Research suggests that root vegetables contain cancer fighting substances called phytochemicals, along with a host of vitamins and nutrients which help strengthen our resistance to other health problems.

When certain foods are browned, roasted or broiled, several chemical processes occur, producing a sweeter, richer flavour than other cooking methods. This is especially true with foods that contain natural sugars, like beets and other root vegetables. Compared to cooking methods like boiling, high oven temperatures intensify the natural sweetness and create more complex flavours.

Back to the root of it!

Beetroot or beets have been eaten by man since prehistory and are native across a wide region from Britain to India. Exceptionally high in natural sugar (up to eight percent of its weight), the beet's sweetness increases with oven roasting.

Beets contain calcium and anti-oxidants, which help fight free radicals, the damaging forms of oxygen that attack the cell's membranes and contents. Beets are also high in dietary fibre.

Carrots were originally native to Afghanistan but also known to the Greeks and Romans. The variety familiar to us now was developed in the Middle Ages and brought to America by the colonists.  Carrots were originally purple or white, the orange vegetable we know so well today was created by cross-breeding.

Carrots are rich in vitamin A and phytochemicals (naturally found only in plant foods), like carotenoids. (Large carrots have ten times more carotenoids and vitamin A than the baby ones do.) Carrots also contain a pectin fiber that has been found to have cholesterol-lowering properties.

Turnips have been cultivated for about 4,000 years, and is a staple food for much of the poor in Eurasia. But gourmet diners love its delicate, lightly sweet taste, and experienced chefs appreciate its versatility. In addition to adding them to one-pot oven dishes or stir-fries, turnips can be mashed or puréed for a pleasant change from mashed potatoes.

Turnips, which are part of the mustard family, contain vitamin C and phytochemicals with tongue-twister names like dithiolthiones, isothiocyanates and organosulfides. These phytochemicals work together in different ways to combat cancer, heart disease and DNA damage.

Parsnips are a true winter crop, converting the parsnip's starch to sugar only after the first winter frosts.  It's pleasantly sweet flavour is under-appreciated in America, compared to Europe and its dense flavour adds complexity to casseroles and, in combination with other vegetables like carrots and turnips, makes a winning combination of pleasure and healthful nutrition.

Parsnips are part of the carrot family. They have a nutrient and phytochemical profile similar to other vegetables in this group, and are good at fighting cancer and heart disease.

Selecting, storing and preparing root vegetables for cooking

Choose root vegetables that are smooth and firm, with a bright colour. The best carrots are young and slender, and large carrots have more flavour than baby ones. Both parsnips and turnips are preferable young, when they are small and sweeter.

Although parsnips are available year-round, their peak months are in fall and winter, after the first frost. Beets are also best selected at this time of year.

Store carrots in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin of a refrigerator, away from apples, which release a gas that can give carrots a bitter taste. Although turnips can be refrigerated, tightly wrapped, for 2 weeks, they do best in a well-ventilated, cool (55 degrees) area. Parsnips and beets can also be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to two weeks.

Young carrots need only a rinsing, but older ones should be peeled before cooking. Turnips and parsnips should be washed, trimmed and peeled before using. When beets are ready to be oven roasted, their skins should be left on to avoid damage to cells and prevent their deep red color from dissipating. (To avoid staining your hands when peeling beets afterwards, use disposable gloves while slipping off the skin with a paring knife.)

Take a look at 50connect Recipes section for some tasty root vegetable recipes.

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