In our continuing Canada's Tastemakers series, we profile people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene, from authors to producers to chefs and more. Today Tiffany Mayer talks to Anan Palanichamy, founder of Dr. Beetroot, whose goal is for all Canadians (and the world!) to love the mighty little beet.
Beets weren’t a big part of Anan Palanichamy’s diet growing up in India.
In fact, they weren’t really part of his diet at all. But when the agricultural engineer suffered heat stroke while working on a rural development project in 40°C weather in the subcontinent, it was the humble root vegetable that brought him back to health, even when allopathic medicine couldn’t.
“My mom suggested I try beets,” Palanichamy recalled. “I don’t know why she suggested it but I tried it and it worked.”
Being a science mind, Palanichamy did some research. He discovered it was beets’ anti-inflammatory properties that likely helped him to heal. They’re also high in potassium and can lower blood pressure. They boast iron and folic acid. Beets’ abundance of antioxidants suggest they may be the fountain of youth, too, or at least contain some potent anti-aging properties.
So began a fascination with a vegetable that would eventually become the cornerstone of his livelihood.
Staking a Future On The Small But Mighty Beet
Palanichamy is the proprietor of Dr. Beetroot, a Winnipeg food start-up rooted in getting people to eat more beets — and reap the benefits. He incorporates beets into everyday pantry and kitchen staples, including ketchup, jam, juice, sauce, and even as chips in an effort put more beets on Canadian dinner plates.
The idea for Dr. Beetroot was born after Palanichamy came to Canada to do graduate studies in food processing engineering at the University of Manitoba in the early 2000s. He launched a consulting business after graduation to help other food enterprises during which time he started chipping away at his own business plan to produce herbal supplements, including those with beets as an ingredient.
It wasn’t a stretch — Palanichamy’s paternal grandfather was a naturopath, and likely his mom’s source of information about the vegetable she recommended to her son when overcoming heat stroke.
He also boned up on beets’ history and significance in European cultures. He learned borscht, the beet-based soup popular in Eastern Europe, and pickles were about the only commercial beet products available in Canada. And all the knowledge of beets’ benefits was passed on through home cooks and family matriarchs. In other words, our collective understanding of the beet’s power was limited.
It was clear beets needed a boost to launch them into the mainstream and get Canadians eating more of a superfood flying far below kale on the collective radar of the health conscious.
From Beet Supplements to Beet Edibles
Palanichamy started to think of other ways to use beets, shifting gears from supplements to edibles in 2013. Ketchup came to mind. So did dips. He tested his prototypes at farmers markets and got all the feedback he needed to make Dr. Beetroot a bona fide business.
“People stopped by to see the beet ketchup. They laughed at it,” Palanichamy recalled. “Then they tried it and were ready to pay money.”
He spent two years working on his beet ketchup, taking it from concept, to craft show and farmers market darling, to commercialized product sold online. It’s also available in Sobeys, Safeway, Save-on-Foods and Co-op stores in and around Winnipeg. It’s joined on store shelves by Dr. Beetroot products developed since then, including beet sauce, a generic condiment that can be used on just about anything, beet spread similar to a jam, a drinkable beet juice, and borscht.
Building a Beet Empire One Product at a Time
His goal is to develop 60 beet-based products in the next 15 years. He’s on his way with new additions, including bread, chips, and honey-dipped diced beets. They’re all in various stages of testing en route to becoming commercialized products, a process that can take three years each.
Palanichamy plans to work more beets into Canadians’ diets to start, but his eye is on taking Dr. Beetroot international.
“Beets do not have boundaries,” he said with a laugh. Even in India, he noted, where they do grow in cooler, hilly regions of the country.
Now that he lives in Manitoba, however, and uses beets grown in Portage la Prairie in his products, Palanichamy eats a lot more of them than when he was growing up.
Not too many, though. Beets contain oxalate, which can cause kidney stones.
“Just 50 grams a day is enough,” he explained. “I’m not eating them every day but in a week, two or three times.”
Palanichamy knows beets can be tough sell with their earthy flavour, especially when eaten raw. But he’s convinced if he can love beets — and stake a business on them — anyone can learn to appreciate them. Because beets are cooked for Dr. Beetroot products, they lose some of their pungent flavour but not the nutrients, he noted.
“For me, I wasn’t used to eating beets but when I started eating them, they tasted sweet. I stir-fried them and they softened so it was a wonderful side dish,” Palanichamy said. “Those who said ‘I don’t like beets,’ they liked our jam, our sauce, and said these are better ways to eat beets. You can taste the sweetness.”
People are equally surprised — and grateful — when Palanichamy regales them with all the health benefits of beets, much like he was was years ago as a heat stroke-afflicted agricultural engineer in India.
“They appreciate it and sometimes they say, ‘You’re a genius.’ We’re telling them the scientific reasons,” he said. “This gives me satisfaction from my work when people appreciate it.”
Find Dr. Beetroot on Social Media
Or visit their on-line shop.
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Tiffany Mayer is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Time For Grub. You can also listen to her food podcast, Grub and read more of her work here on FBC.