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Dig This: Root Vegetables

Dig This: Root Vegetables

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.

Golden Potato Root Mash
French Onion Soup
Spicy Sweet Potato Puree
Hearty Root Vegetable Pot Pie
Savory Braised Turnips and Carrots

For comprehensive information and detailed nutrition facts, see this primer on root vegetables from Whole Foods Market.

Read more: All recipes, Basics, Food, Side Dishes,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


+ add your own
6:25PM PST on Mar 1, 2013


2:48AM PST on Mar 1, 2013

Thanks -bookmarked

8:43PM PST on Feb 28, 2013

Delightful, have always loved to get at the root of the this case...delightful wholesome food.

8:40PM PST on Feb 28, 2013


5:49AM PST on Nov 17, 2011


10:34PM PDT on Sep 30, 2011

great article, root vegies are so good for us, simply baked, mashed, grated for salads, or juiced, love 'em!

9:06AM PDT on Oct 10, 2009

This is an occasion to dust of the juicer & get going. Thank you

12:45PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

Try this fabulous, tasty and very healthy juice...
1 medium beetroot (raw)
1 or 2 carrots
small piece of ginger (1/2 inch cube)
green apple
Peel all vegetables and cut into pieces suitable for the juicer.
This is so good both summer and winter... you will wonder why you have never tried it before !!

5:34PM PST on Dec 20, 2008

I love roots

8:26AM PDT on Apr 28, 2008


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