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Root(s) of Health
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— September 15, 2018

Root(s) of Health

By Corine Garcia
  • Once the wallflowers of the produce aisle, root veggies are now in demand for their superfood qualities.
Root(s) of Health

For some time now, dietitians have recommended powering up your potato by opting for the sweet version over the white to add nutrition to your side dish. But the options don’t end there.

Beets, rutabagas, turnips, yams, sunchokes (once known as Jerusalem artichokes), parsnips…if it sounds like a lineup from your grandmother’s World War II Victory Garden, well, you’re not far off. These vegetables have a deep-rooted history; packed full of fiber, vitamins A, B and C, and complex carbohydrates, there was a reason your grandmother served them back in the day.

It’s the same reason root vegetables have seen a resurgence on grocery store shelves and hip restaurant menus: They combine earthy flavor with health benefits that never go out of style.

In fact, root veggies are among “the most nutrient-dense vegetables on the planet,” explains Wesley Delbridge, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are grown underground, packed in tightly, and pull in the nutrients from the surrounding soil. Growing in the ground also makes them more fibrous, and anything with fiber makes us feel fuller for longer.”

And these vegetables’ bright colors, from the purple beet to the orange carrot, means they contain a variety of powerful antioxidants.

Then there’s the convenience factor. Remember the olden days when everyone had a root cellar? These vegetables can be stored longer, making them more available year round. “They don’t contain a lot of moisture, so they last a really long time,” Delbridge says. 

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with the foods you are used to, explains Stephanie Pedersen, author of Roots: The Complete Guide to the Underground Superfood (Sterling). “This is a chance to add something exciting but not threatening to our diets,” she says. “And you’re doing double duty, not only filling your stomach, but filling your body with nutrition. White rice or pasta is going to fill you up, but not offer nutrition.”


Beets have certainly made a big comeback, making superfood lists and hitting menus in the form of beet salads, sides, even souffles.

And with good reason: “Because of their color, they have a high amount of phytonutrients that are studied a lot for cancer prevention,” Pedersen says. “A lot of athletes use them because they are said to improve physical stamina. Beets are also known as a liver purifier in Chinese medicine.”

Beets give you a blast of vitamin C, beta-carotene, potassium, folate and betaine, an important amino acid that helps prevent cardiovascular disease and promote muscle gain and fat loss.

Pedersen likes to shred beets with other root vegetables and mix with a cilantro-and-lime juice dressing for a quick salad, or slice them really thin, brush them with olive and bake them as chips. She also caramelizes onions while throwing in some thinly sliced beets. “It makes a great topper to put on focaccia or on cheese; it’s jammy,” she says.

Beets are easy for newbie cooks: No matter how long you cook a beet, it will never turn to mush. Click To Tweet


Without a doubt one of the most popular root vegetables, carrots provide high levels of the antioxidants alpha- and beta-carotene as well as vitamin A.

How popular are carrots? Enough so that each of us ate about 8.5 pounds in 2018. Click To Tweet

In studies, carrots have been credited with reducing the risks of prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease and glaucoma. One Harvard study even found that carrots affect brain function to improve levels of optimism (Psychosomatic Medicine 2/13).

And there are out-of-the-box ways to incorporate carrots into your diet. For one thing, multi-colored, organic carrots offer interesting new options.

There are also different ways to employ this useful root. For example, Pedersen likes to roast or steam a bunch of peeled carrots, throw them in the food processor with a tablespoon of nut butter or hummus, garlic, salt and pepper, and use it as a dip or sandwich spread. “We do a lot of shredded carrots on sandwiches, and cut them into chips for dips,” she says. “We also juice a lot of carrots and use it as a base for salad dressing.”


Sounds like “hicama,” tastes like a crispy, less-sweet apple. “I think people love it for its crisp, refreshing bite; it’s like a green apple without the appleness,” Pedersen says. 

Jicama, originally from Mexico, is high in potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C and antioxidants. It is also rich in fiber, specifically a kind called inulin that has been proven to lower the risk of colon cancer, help improve intestinal disorders and lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Pedersen slices jicama into logs and uses them for dipping. “It’s a great way to get away from the tortilla chips and get a good amount of fiber,” she says. She also adds jicama to a shredded salad or throws it into a roasting pan with other root vegetables. “It cooks well; it can be chopped and thrown into a soup to add the texture instead of potato.”


Shaped like a carrot, but white, the parsnip has an earthier flavor. “My kids think they taste like dirt,” Pedersen laughs. But that doesn’t stop her from sneaking parsnips into foods like soups and stews. “It’s in the same family as the carrot, but it doesn’t have that big beta-carotene hit,” she says.

However, parsnips do contain folate, magnesium, vitamin C, potassium and phosphate, as well as fiber. It also has a phytonutrient called falcarinol that has shown cancer-fighting properties.

Delbridge suggests substituting mashed parsnip for mashed potato, or at least going half and half. Pedersen adds parsnip to her roasted root vegetable mix, purees it and adds it to lasagna or soups, or shreds it and slips it into baked goods or oatmeal for added fiber.


One of the more obscure roots, the sunchoke has gained more attention of late.

The sunchoke used to be referred to as Jerusalem artichoke, even though it has nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes. Click To Tweet

With a gnarled appearance (similar to that of ginger) it has been making its way onto menus with a nutty, yet sweet, flavor. “It’s definitely gone crazy in the Paleo world,” Pedersen says, “and it’s typically roasted like a new potato with a nuttier taste.” 

With high levels of the fiber inulin, sunchoke has been shown to lower the risk of intestinal infections. “But it contains a really large amount of inulin, and if you have a lot, it creates the worst gas, cramps and bloating, so you have to be careful,” Pedersen says. “Eat them, but no more than a half a cup.”

Aside from roasting sunchokes, Pedersen likes to add them to soups, and they are also commonly added to a root-veg mash.

Sweet Potato

Sweets are a hot food trend: consumption increased nearly 42% between 2000 and 2016. Click To Tweet

One reason? The sweet potato is considered the healthier potato. One cup contains about double the beta-carotene and vitamin A compared with a cup of carrots, along with omega-3s, potassium, vitamin C, calcium and fiber, among other nutrients. The root’s antioxidants have shown cancer-fighting abilities.

An easy swap for a baked potato, Pedersen cooks sweets the same way and tops them with black beans, salsa and guacamole. “I also roast a batch and add them to a black bean-and-
chipotle burrito,” Pedersen says. “Or I puree a lot and add it to various things as they cook: toss it into beans, sneak it into pancake or muffin batter, add to a smoothie.”

It’s not uncommon for Delbridge to serve sweet potatoes for breakfast. “You can bake them ahead of time, pop them into the microwave, and add butter and cinnamon,” he says. “It’s a great form of complex carbs to start your day.” 

Turnip & Rutabaga

Often confused for one another, turnips tend to have a purple top and a slightly more bitter flavor. Both are members of the brassica family (that includes cabbage, kale and broccoli, among others) and have been shown to reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer. But maybe it’s the muted, earthy flavor and white tone that make these root vegetables a little less showy on the plate, and therefore less seen on menus today. 

“Rutabaga and turnip are really nice in a pan of roasted vegetables and give a sharpness that goes well with the sweetness of a sweet potato or carrot,” Pedersen says. She also adds both to shredded raw salads or boils them until soft and adds them to mashed potatoes or cauliflower.

Delbridge uses a turnip puree to thicken soups that call for heavy cream. “Because of the starch content, they lend a creaminess to soup,” he says. “If you’re making a cream-based soup, do half dairy and half puree to cut the calories.” Both can also be chopped up and added easily to soups and stews.


ET Recipes

Carrot Spread

“This is one of my household’s favorite dips,” says Stephanie Pedersen. “We make several different variations of it. It’s healthy and economical. Plus, everyone loves it. Try it with sweet potato or winter squash if you are out of carrots.”

6 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1⁄2 small garlic clove, chopped
1⁄4 tsp ground cumin
1⁄4 tsp finely grated, 
peeled fresh ginger
1⁄8 tsp ground cinnamon
1–2 tbsp tahini, almond 
butter or cashew butter
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Salt and ground pepper, to taste
Optional: pinch of cayenne 
pepper or dash of hot sauce

1. Set a steamer basket in a saucepan with 2 inches simmering water. Add carrots; cover and steam until tender, about 12 minutes. Or simply boil carrots in a small amount of water and drain when done.

2. Transfer cooked carrots to a food processor, along with remaining ingredients. Process until smooth, about 1 minute, adding up to 2 tbsp water, if necessary. Adjust seasonings as desired.

Makes about 1.5 cups

Radish-Jicama Salsa

“This fresh-tasting salsa is fast and so cooling—the perfect summer salsa!” says Stephanie Pedersen. “It is lovely with tortilla chips and in fish tacos; it’s also great on grilled poultry and fish. Sometimes I add in a cup or two of cubed avocado.”

2 cups chopped radishes
1 cup chopped jicama
1⁄2 small red onion, chopped
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp minced fresh jalapeño or serrano pepper
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, or more to taste
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Put all the ingredients in a medium bowl and toss thoroughly to combine.

2. Taste and adjust the seasoning—adding more jalapeño or serrano pepper, or lemon or lime, or salt and black pepper—as needed. 

3. Serve immediately or keep tightly covered for up to a day.

Makes about 2 cups

Parsnip-Carrot Pickle

“Oh wow, this is a yummy pickle,” exclaims Stephanie Pedersen. “Do give this a try. It’s a bit higher in sugar than I’d like, but I just haven’t been able to successfully reduce it.” She adds a note: “Allowing the vegetables and brine to cool separately may seem a bit fiddly, but it helps the veggies retain a bit of bite.”

3 cups water
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
6 whole cloves
6 allspice berries
1-2 small dried red chiles
1 bay leaf
2 tsp yellow mustard seed
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
4 tsp salt
2 medium parsnips, peeled, cored and cut into sticks 2” long and ¼” thick
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into sticks 2” long and ¼” thick
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1-2 fresh jalapeños, thinly sliced

1. Combine water with sugar, vinegar, cloves, allspice, chiles, bay leaf, mustard seed, turmeric, ginger, and salt in a large non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. 

2. Add the parsnips, carrots, and onion, and cook for about 5 minutes. 3. Turn off the heat and add the jalapeño. 

3. Remove the vegetables from the hot brine and place in a 1-quart canning jar or a sealable food container. Set aside. Allow brine to cool.

4. When both the vegetables and brine are cool, pour the brine over the vegetables, seal the jar or container and place in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. 

Yield: about 1 quart.


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