Beetroot! It’s the rich purple red root vegetable we’re accustomed to seeing as part of the salad in our hamburgers and sandwiches. It also comes in yellow orange varieties. Beetroot can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable in its own right – whole roasted beetroots are a delicious addition to any roast meal! Borscht or beetroot soup is a popular central and eastern European dish. Adding beetroot juice to any fruit and vegetable juice mix only makes it healthier. They can also be eaten raw as they are quite sweet. Beetroot is in fact a veritable powerhouse nutritionally. It is choc full of antioxidants. So much so that it ranks among the top 10 vegetables for antioxidant content!
Beetroot is a member of the Caryophylalles family, a sub-group of flowering plants that is somewhat unique in the world of plants. For a couple of reasons. The members of this family produce a group of unique pigments collectively called betalains. These pigments are not found in any other plant groups! Additionally, Caryophylalles also lack the genetic ability to synthesise carotenoids and flavonoids, two other very common plant pigments. It’s not known whether they did once have the ability to do so and lost that genetic coding or if they’ve never had it. Well-known flowering plants in the Caryophylalles family include Bougainvillea, Amaranthus, Carnations, Ice Plant, many of the carnivorous plants and some types of cacti.
The Unique Betalain Pigments In Beetroot
There are two sub-groups of betalain pigments. One group, the betacyanins, are red-violet pigments. The other group, the betaxanthins, are yellow-orange pigments.
The most common types of betacyanins are betanin, isobetanin, probetanin, and neobetanin, all of which are found in red beetroot. Amaranthus plants produce 2 other forms of betacyanins – amaranthine and isoamaranthine.
Betaxanthin pigments include vulgaxanthin, miraxanthin, portulaxanthin, and indicaxanthin. Some of the yellow betaxanthin pigments have been found to have fluorescent properties, notably that produced by Portulaca grandiflora. Yellow varieties of beetroot contain the betaxanthins indicaxanthin and vulgaxanthins.
Flavonoids And Carotenoids
Two other pigment groups – flavonoids and carotenoids – also produce these red/violet, yellow/orange colors. Flavonoids are the red, yellow, purple and blue pigments responsible for giving berries, citrus fruit and many varieties of flowers their colors. They’re also found in green and black tea, chocolate and wine. Carotenoids are also yellow and orange pigments, found in many different foods that are yellow and orange. Carotenoids are particularly important because they’re used to produce Vitamin A as part of the digestive process.
Color however is about the only thing betalains have in common with either of these 2 pigment groups. Chemically and structurally, betalains more closely resemble the color pigments produced by animals, called melanins. Particularly eumelanin, the black skin and coat pigment in mammals.
Tyrosine – The Common Denominator In Betalains And The Animal Pigment Melanin
Both betalains and animal melanins are synthesised from the amino acid tyrosine. Flavonoids on the other hand are synthesised from phenylalanine, a completely different amino acid. And carotenoids are different again – they’re synthesised from naturally occurring organic chemicals rather than amino acids. Then there’s chlorophyll, the green pigment in nearly all other living plants. This is synthesised from glutamate, yet another amino acid.
Beetroot – An Extremely Safe Food Colorant And Natural Dye
One of the most common uses for betalain pigments is as food colorants. These pigments are non-toxic and so safe they can be used in high concentrations and are approved for this use by health authorities. Products that may use red betalain pigments extracted from beetroot to give them a red or pink color include processed meats, dairy such as yoghurt and ice cream, jams, sauces, soups and even cakes.
Betalain pigments have also have a long history of use as natural dyes although today many have been replaced with more stable manufactured substitutes. However, with the current trend towards moving away from manufactured chemicals as much as possible, interest in plant-based dyes has been revived. But dyes and food colorants are not all beetroot is good for!
Beetroot – A Super Powerful Antioxidant
Betanin, the most common betacyanin pigment in beetroot, is also finding its way into a growing number of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. And not just as a coloring agent! Studies are increasingly proving that betacyanins have a number of potential health benefits. For example, betanin is a very effective and potent antioxidant. At least one study discovered it significantly reduces oxidative stress and may aid in the prevention of some types of degenerative diseases.
Further, it’s been found that betanin’s free radical scavenging capacity is some 3 to 4 times more effective than ascorbic acid (vitamin C), rutin or catechin. It is also twice as effective as some of the anthocyanins that are currently touted as valuable anti-oxidants and is at least equal to the powerful anthocyanin found in blueberries. Anthocyanins are the red pigments that give most other plants their red coloring; they are not found in any of the Caryophylalles family plants.
There is also evidence beetroot contains phytochemicals that can boost liver function and improve detoxification as well as improve overall intestinal health. It is particularly high in glutamine for example, an amino acid that plays a vital role in the removal of cellular waste by-products like ammonia. Glutamine also helps support the immune system, aids with brain function and assists digestion.
Can Beetroot Help Prevent Cancers?
A 2007 study established that betanin extracted from the fruit of the prickly pear Opuntia ficus-indica acts as a potent antiproliferative agent against human leukemia cells. An antiproliferative agent is a substance that can slow down or stop cells spreading into surrounding tissue. They are particularly important in the treatment of cancers. This supports evidence produced in an earlier study that revealed beetroot phytochemicals could help prevent some types of cancers, notably skin and lung cancers.
Beetroot Helps Prevent DNA Damage
Peroxynitrate (ONOO-) is a powerful nitrosylative oxidant capable of damaging DNA. Anthocyanins from blueberries are known to be able to drastically reduce the amount of damage it does. Tests however have shown that the betalains betanin and isobetanin can also achieve the same damage reduction at similar dosages to blueberry anthocyanins. This amount incidentally is around one quarter of the quantity of Vitamin C required to produce the same results!
Beetroot Reduces LDL Oxidation With Positive Implications For Arteriosclerosis
Betalains also help protect Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) from oxidation. Lipoproteins are the proteins that carry cholesterol around the body. LDLs susceptibility to oxidation is one of the reasons these small dense lipoproteins are implicated in heart disease. Research has shown however that even in small amounts, betalains can counteract this oxidation process more effectively than the antioxidants catechin and a-tocopherol. And more effectively than Vitamin E as well, although it’s thought that betalains and Vitamin E together could have important synergistic effects. Tests done on humans further show that lipid oxidation biomarkers in plasma are also decreased by betalains.
Nitrates In Beetroot Help Lower Blood Pressure
Both red and white varieties of beetroot contain significant quantities of inorganic nitrates, a nitric oxide precursor. Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas produced naturally in the body, and an endothelium-dependent relaxation factor. It’s responsible for relaxing smooth muscle cells in blood vessel walls, making it an important vasodilation mediator. Vasodilation is a process that widens blood vessels, triggered by the relaxation of these smooth muscle cells. This widening allows for increased blood flow and produces a corresponding reduction in blood pressure, plaque build up and blood clotting. All important considerations for high blood pressure, heart disease and erectile dysfunction.
A study that looked at the effectiveness of beetroot juice for lowering blood pressure found that the beetroot juice had more effect than similar quantities of nitrate alone. This infers that beetroot juice, with its high nitrate content, likely produces a synergistic effect for lowering blood pressure when combined with pre-existing nitric oxide in the body.
Beetroot Nitrates Can Improve Exercise Performance
It’s common knowledge that nitrate can improve exercise and athletic performance because of its vasodilatory effects. However, to avoid adverse side effects, nitrates should ideally be obtained by including nitrate rich vegetables like beetroot in a healthy, balanced diet. A 2012 study looked at the benefits of drinking beetroot juice prior to exercise and found that it did improve performance and lower exertion rates. The study also found that the nitrates in beetroot juice were able to reduce pulmonary oxygen usage during exercise. Beetroot juice is can improve muscle contractions according to this study.
Topical Applications Of Beetroot Antioxidants
Numerous studies in both animals and humans are proving the protective skin care benefits to be gained through topical application of antioxidants. The findings of these reviews indicate that skin cells can and do absorb topical antioxidants. And that antioxidants absorbed like this provide significant photoprotective benefits, particularly when used prior to UVR exposure. Notably, they reduce the effects of skin damage like Erythema caused by UVB rays. They are also highly effective in neutralizing the damaging effects of oxidization in skin cells. Including UVA induced oxidation responsible for dangerous skin changes like cancer!
Oxidization and free radicals help speed up the general aging process of our skin, leading to pre-mature wrinkles, dry skin and collagen breakdown. Topical applications of antioxidants provide valuable protection against these oxidative processes and may even reverse some of the damage.
Whilst the most commonly used antioxidants in skin care products designed for these purposes are Vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants in beetroot are demonstrably more potent. Beetroot also contains significant quantities of vitamin C in its own right.
Other skin and health benefits anecdotally attributed to beetroot include:
- Helps reduce blemishes and pigmentation spots – it’s the vitamin C in beetroot, which applied topically, helps to even out skin tones as well as reduce blemishes and pigmentation.
- Helps with hair growth – beetroot contains potassium. Low levels of potassium are linked to hair loss. Therefore, drinking beetroot juice or including beetroots in your diet can help improve your potassium levels, leading to improved hair growth and reduce hair loss.
So there you have it! Beetroot is a veritable treasure trove of nutrition. It has many vitamins and minerals including vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9 (folate) and vitamin C. It is particularly high in folate. By way of minerals beetroot contains calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc. Plus it’s high in fiber for good digestive health and low in fat. All of which combine to make it one of those vegetables that should never be overlooked when planning a healthy, balanced diet. Oh and the leaves are an invaluable source of nutrition as well and can be boiled and eaten in much the same way as spinach.
The Not So Beneficial Bits About Beetroot
As beneficial as beetroot is, it does have a few not so beneficial side effects, particularly if consumed in large quantities. In a small % of people, the red pigments can cause a condition called beeturia, which is red stained urine and stools. Whilst harmless in its own right, this red staining can nevertheless mask the presence of blood in urine and stools. These are indications of internal bleeding that could be caused by potentially serious health problems like kidney disease and colon cancer! It’s thought that beeturia, which is essentially caused by inadequate break down of the red pigments by the digestive system, may be linked to iron deficiency.
Beetroots Are High In Oxalate
Beetroots, particularly the leaves and stems, are high in oxalate, an organic acid that binds calcium and renders it indigestible. This can cause several health conditions. One is kidney stones so if you suffer from these, or have a history of kidney stones, you would be wise to avoid beetroot. Another is calcium deficiency, which can lead to a host of health problems including osteoporosis and hypocalcemia. Oxalate rich foods have also been linked to build up of uric acid, which can lead to a type of arthritis called gout.
Sometimes That High Nitrate Content Of Beetroot Is Not So Beneficial
The high nitrate content of beetroot, so beneficial in many ways, can also cause health problems. Nitrates are a precursor to nitric oxide, which is involved in widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. Therefore, excess amounts of nitrates can cause blood pressure dips in people already suffering from low blood pressure. Pregnant women are also advised to avoid consuming too much excess nitrate.
Beetroots – High In Fiber And Sugar Which Can Be A Problem
Beetroot is naturally high in fiber, which is great for most of us but not so great for people who suffer from gastrointestinal disorders. It can cause stomach cramps, flatulence, and bloating. Beetroots are also high in sugar with a medium Glycemic Index ranking, indicating they will raise blood sugar levels. If you are trying to keep your blood sugar levels low, beetroot may not be a good option for you. However, the GI does not factor in carbohydrate content, which affects the rate at which those sugars are metabolised by the body – their Glycemic Load (GL). GL is a far more accurate way of assessing how a food high in carbs will affect blood sugar overall. Beetroot has a very low GL rating, indicating that its sugars are converted very slowly, making it a relatively stable source for blood sugar. Therefore, if a steady and reliable source of sugar is what you need, beetroots are great.