I’m deeply drawn to vegetables grown underground. I find them mysterious, otherworldly. Like geodes and gemstones, they come from a world that I know little of. They drink in the nutrients from dark soil and transform them into perfectly imperfect knobs and tubes of exuberant color and uncommon nutrition. They are the heart and soul of plants.
Technically, the term “root vegetables” includes only those that are either tuberous roots or taproots and include beets, cassava, carrots, horseradish, radishes, rutabagas, parsnips, salsify and turnips. Other categories of underground vegetables include: bulbs (onions, garlic), corms (celeriac, eddo, taro), rhizomes (ginger, galangal, turmeric), and tubers (potatoes and the like). That said, most people refer to the whole shebang of edible underground plants as root vegetables.
Historically root vegetables were fare for peasants and the poor. It’s surprising that the nobility and elite didn’t hoard all of that delicious beauty for themselves. The freakish fuchsia of a beetroot and the saturated orange of a carrot seem so desirable. But for people across the globe, many with little means or the right climate for other options, root vegetables have served as an invaluable source of nutrition. As the “storage bin” for a plant’s nutrients, root vegetables are powerhouses of vitamins, phytonutrients, and complex carbohydrates. Because of their nature, they can survive cold storage and they are invaluable for winter nutrition in cold climates when little else is growing.
As it turns out, root vegetables have also been used for medicinal purposes throughout time. We know of the healing properties of garlic, ginseng and ginger, but did you know that burdock is said to promote good skin health or that fennel root is very good for the digestive tract? The list of roots and their remedies is long and impressive.
In general, root vegetables have no fat and are low in calories. They can be an excellent source of protein, and their phytonutrients are proven to have extraordinary health benefits. The phytonutrients include antioxidants which fight free radicals in our bodies. The phytonutrients are associated with the color of the vegetable, and the more intense a vegetable’s color is, the more phytonutrients it contains. So those intensely red beets? Chock full of healthy antioxidants. Bright orange carrots good for the eyes? A glass of carrot juice contains about 45,000 IU of vitamin A. That’s gotta be good for something!
What makes root vegetables so terrific can also occasionally also be their undoing. Since roots vegetables are storage organs for the plants they support, they are packed full of energy in the form of carbohydrates (by way of fiber, sugar and starch). Now this is good for us as we require carbohydrates for our own energy, but foods with a high starch content rate high on the Glycemic Index (GI), which measures how fast the carbohydrate of a particular food is converted to glucose and enters the bloodstream. The higher the number on the GI, the quicker the absorption of sugar is resulting in a sharp increase in blood sugar. Cooking vegetables can sometimes increase their glycemic rating, and most roots require cooking.
Root vegetables that have a medium rating on the GI include sweet potatoes, boiled potatoes, yams, onions, beets and raw carrots. Those that get a high ranking include baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, parsnips, cooked carrots and rutabagas. If you are interested in finding out specific GI ratings for food items, you can search the database at Glycemic Index. In addition, root vegetables’ dearth of fat makes them a good match for fatty ingredients. Make sure not to counter the salubrious nature of roots with too much fat.
For comprehensive information and detailed nutrition facts, see this primer on root vegetables from Whole Foods Market.