The hardy plant which spread through Europe and the World
A great source of food and one-time savior of the sugar industry
The origin of beets dates back way before the civilized world first discovered this wondrous plant. Beets are thought to have originally grown wild in part of North Africa, Asia, and along the Mediterranean coastline.
800 B.C. - The First Signs of Beets
The beet was first mentioned in ancient Assyria, one of the main kingdoms which made up the cradle of civilization known as Mesopotamia. Although we are not clear about its usage at this time, there is mention of beets being grown in the hanging Gardens of Babylon and used as an offering to the sun god Apollo.
The Dawnings of a Superfood
Whilst the modern world is primarily concerned with the taproot of beets, historically this part of the plant remained unused, with people exclusively using the beet greens as a source of food.
Beets greens were primarily used as an ingredient in soups and broths, where it was boiled in salted water with chicken or other vegetables.
Ancient Rome and Beet Roots
The Romans were one of the first civilizations which utilized the root of beets as a source of food. Whilst it was eaten as a source of food, the Romans also made use of beets as a medicine, prescribing it as a laxative or to relieve the symptoms of fever. The ancient Romans also used beets as an aphrodisiac, believing they boosted sexual appetite. Interestingly, this has belief has been acknowledged by modern science, with the boron content of beets directly related to the production of testosterone.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the invading tribes adopted beets as a source of food and were responsible for spreading it throughout Europe. Primarily it was used as animal fodder, however, by the 16th Century, it had become increasingly popular for human consumption.
16th Century - Beets go North
Northern Europeans began to cultivate the beet plant, which showed no problems adapting to the colder climates. This caused new varieties of beets to develop, in particular, the plump, rounded version we know today (previously the roots were longer and thinner).
Throughout the 16th Century beets were used in increasingly different ways, with the Russians first using the plant to make borscht: the now famous soup which was widely accepted throughout Eastern Europe.
18th Century - Beets Refined for Sugar
It was German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, who discovered a method for extracting the sucrose from beets. The possibilities of beets as a source of sugar made them an attractive option, due to their hardiness to many growing conditions and simpler production techniques in comparison to sugar cane. The King of Prussia, Frederick William III, recognized the possibility of beets as a source of sugar, and sanctioned the first factory built in Poland.
19th Century - Discovering the value of Beets
During the 19th Century, access to sugar cane had become increasingly difficult in Europe. The Napoleonic Wars meant the British had cut off imports from the Caribbean, and not wanting to fund an enemy, Napoleon banned sugar imports in 1813. With sugar increasingly difficult to find, beets became a primary source of sugar in Europe. The industry thrived, the resulting effect being approximately 20% of the world’s sugar comes from beets.
19th Century - Beets begin to travel
During this period, the world began to notice beets as a good source of sugar. It was in the 19th Century that beets were first brought to the United States, and the English began to pickle beets, a format which they still use today.
Beets in the Modern World
Nowadays, beets are commercially produced throughout the world due to their hardiness and ability to thrive in most weather conditions. The leading producers of beets these days are the United States, Russia, Poland, France, and Germany.