Once seen as the Cinderella of the kitchen garden, beetroot is now soaring up the supermarket sales league table, thanks to an astonishing list of health-giving properties. Maxine Frith reports

The humble beetroot has always been a bit of a poor relation to other, trendier species in the vegetable world. Perhaps it is because of its association with war-time rationing (it was often used as a substitute for soft fruit in jam). Perhaps it's the memory of the cheap pickled variety that adorned school dinners (and its irritating side-effect: the indelible red stains). Whatever the reason, it has never had quite the cachet of, say, fennel or artichokes.

Now all that is changing.

According to Tesco, beetroot sales have doubled during the past year and its stores are now having to devote extra space to the raw variety in their vegetable aisles. Uber-hip chef Heston Blumenthal features beetroot jelly on the menu of his Michelin three-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck. And one of the most popular dishes at the eastern European-themed Baltic bistro in London is beetroot and apple salad.

But it is not only the world of fine dining that this unglamorous root vegetable has conquered. Beetroot has now been anointed by health experts as a "superfood" - virtually fat free, rich in iron and magnesium and possibly cancer-preventing to boot.

It even boasts its own diet - in which followers have to eat beetroot three times a day, alongside other vegetables and whole foods. Dismiss it as yet another food fad if you will, but Warwickshire County Cricket Club adopted the Beetroot Diet in 2004 - and won the county championship that season.

Beetroot was known as a delicacy in Ancient Greece, where the leaves were cooked with honey and wine. The root was prized for its medicinal qualities and was used as a treatment for fevers, skin problems and digestive complaints.

Those well-known gourmets the Romans also ate beetroot, with Apicius, the Jamie Oliver of his day, recommending that it be made into a salad with a dressing of mustard, oil and vinegar - not so very dissimilar from the 21st-century recipe on the opposite page.

In the 16th century, it was given as a "blood builder" to people who were pale and run down. At the time, doctors and patients may not have known why it was so efficaceous, but health experts now know that its high iron content can help to treat anaemia and fatigue.

It is also rich in folic acid, which is known to be helpful in reducing the risks of birth defects if taken before conception and in the early stages of pregnancy.

Catherine Zeta Jones is reported to have become addicted to beetroot after eating it while pregnant with her two children.

The weight-conscious actress may also have appreciated the vegetable's lack of fat and the fact that there are only 36 calories per 100 grams. In addition to B vitamins, iron and zinc, beetroot is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium, as well as protein and fibre.

The vegetable that was once seen as peasant fare has come a long way. Dietician Helen Andrews said: "It is interesting because beetroot was originally seen as a poor person's vegetable because it could be grown in your own garden. Now it has become quite trendy, probably partly due to people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall being on television and talking about things you can grow yourself.

"It is also affordable, at a time when one of the complaints people have about eating more fruit and vegetables is that it can be expensive."

She added: "Beetroot does contain lots of vitamins and minerals and is high in soluble fibre, which plays a role in preventing heart disease, so it is very good for you as part of a balanced diet."

If all that weren't enough, researchers have recently labelled the vegetable a "mood food" because it contains a compound called betaine that is known to relax the mind and help with depression.

And there have even been claims that beetroot could be Nature's Viagra, as it has high levels of the mineral boron, which has a role in the production of sex hormones.

Throughout history, it has been believed that the vegetable may have the power to prevent and even cure cancer. Research has shown that beetroot can inhibit tumour growth and has antioxidant properties that may help to prevent cancer in the first place. However, doctors have expressed concern about cancer patients who reject chemotherapy in favour of a regimen of raw vegetables such as beetroot.

Luckily, for those who are still traumatised by childhood memories of pickled beetroot, there are now alternatives. Specialist health shops offer a powder preparation and even freeze-dried cubes. Beetroot juice, which is also on sale in health food shops, is said to help cure acne and contribute to a clear complexion.

Graham Forber, managing director of one of the major beetroot-producing companies in Britain, said that the market in the root vegetable is growing by up to 20 per cent a year. "I think a lot of people have been put off by the nasty pickled variety of beetroot that they had at school," he said.

"It used to be seen as a very traditional rather than trendy vegetable, but all that is changing. Rather than the pickled version, the demand is for the fresh variety. It is seen as being very healthy, with lots of really good properties and quite versatile."

Producers are now generating 60,000 of tonnes of beetroot a year, most of which is sold in this country. And new varieties of the vegetable are also being created, such as the smaller "cocktail beetroot" which is designed for use in canapes, and a "golden" version - which has a yellow rather than red colour to eradicate the risk of staining.

Yes, beetroot is now much more Jamie Oliver than school dinners.

10 things you never knew about beetroot

* Its Latin name is Beta vulgaris and it is part of the Chenopodiaceae family of vegetables, which includes Swiss chard and spinach. As well as the root, which can be baked or boiled, the leaves are edible and can be either eaten in salad, or steamed.

* It originated in the Mediterranean in pre-Christian times and was often left as an offering to the god Apollo at his temple in Delphi.

* The world's heaviest beetroot weighed 23.4kg (51.48lb) and was grown by Ian Neale from Somerset in 2001.

* Beetroot - which is related to the sugar beet - has one of the highest sugar contents of any vegetable. Up to 10 per cent of beetroot is sugar, but it is released slowly into the body rather than the sudden rush that results from eating chocolate.

* Pickled beetroot became popular after the Second World War, when farmers began growing crops in the summer as well as winter.

* The Russians use beetroot to make a soup called borscht, and in Australia, it is a popular topping for burgers.

* English folklore states that if a man and a woman eat from the same beet, they will fall in love.

* The Elizabethans prepared beetroot by wiping it with fresh dung before cooking it.

* The red pigment in beetroot - betaline - is used as a food colouring in a wide range of foods, including frozen pizzas, tomato paste and strawberry ice cream.

* Beetroot was first used as a vegetable dye in the 16th century - later, the Victorians used it as a hair colouring.

Baltic's beetroot and apple salad

This beetroot and apple salad is served at Baltic, the highly acclaimed restaurant in Blackfriars Road, south-east London

Serves four

6 organic beetroots, peeled and roughly grated
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and roughly grated
4 small shallots, finely diced
2 teaspoons of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice

Bind the above together with coarse sea salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Keep chilled.