”Dirt”, ”sand”, ”dust” – these words make my case for red beetroot hard. Often used to describe the flavour profile of this unfavourable vegetable, such words help explain why less than 4.5% of the UK population include it in their diet.
So, why on earth do I believe this root vegetable deserves a place in your diet as much as an apple does? It is inexpensive, easily available, and contains 2 very special compounds: nitrate and betalain.
Let’s get to the science.
Nitrates: The nitrates found in beetroot are one of the main compounds underlying its health benefits. But before the nitrates can work their magic, they first need to be absorbed into your intestines and then blood, before being released back into your saliva where the bacteria on your tongue convert the nitrates into nitric oxide (but avoid spitting or using bacteria-killing mouthwash before/after eating as the conversion will not be as effective!). Nitric oxide widens your blood vessels, and this allows more blood to travel through these vessels so your heart doesn’t need to work as hard. This is noticeable under conditions when your heart needs to work harder: normal exercise & hypertension (ie. for those of you with high blood pressure)! Whether you are an elite athlete or your average exercising Jo (even a brisk walk counts), improving blood flow helps lower your blood pressure and increase the amount of oxygen that can be transported to your muscles. For more high-intensity workouts, your time to reach exhaustion can be delayed by as much as 15% (this was shown in a study of 9 men consuming the equivalent of 3 beetroots a day for 6 days, and they isolated the nitric oxide to ensure it was down to this compound and not the multitude of other health-promoting compounds found in beetroot!) (1). All of these factors ultimately enhance your exercise performance. If you are someone with high blood pressure, the ability of nitrates to lower blood pressure will help towards reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
Betalain: This is what gives beetroot its deep, red/violet colour. It’s different from the pigment (anthocyanins!) that gives red peppers, red cabbage or strawberries their red colour, and is only found elsewhere in amaranth (red spinach), prickly pear, rhubarb and red pitahaya. Little is known about this functional compound, but emerging research suggests that it is effective in fighting inflammation and is also a potent antioxidant. In fact, it is a stronger antioxidant than the well-known antioxidant vitamin C and the infamous anthocyanins found in blueberries (2). It has also been found to reduce the damaging effects of ‘bad cholesterol’ (yes, there is such a thing as ‘good cholesterol’ too!*) and reduces DNA damage (3).
I do need to emphasise that, in most cases, inflammation is not a bad thing. We need a baseline level of pro-inflammatory compounds to induce inflammation, otherwise how else can we fight off foreign microbes or repair damaged tissue? These are examples of acute inflammation, but when the inflammatory response is prolonged or occurs in body areas where it is not needed, this is known as chronic inflammation. Such an unwanted process can lead to numerous diseases including those of the heart, and can also lead to autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. By maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can help your body keep inflammation under control.
Red beetroot clearly packs a punch when it comes to nutrition and it has multifaceted health effects. Our Heart drink is a perfect example for how you can play with its flavour to create a tasty beetroot-based drink, even if you’re not a beetroot fan! Go on, give beetroot a chance – your body will love you for it, and you will be surprised by how delicious our drink is.
*Cholesterol is carried in the blood attached to proteins called lipoproteins. There are two main forms of lipoprotein: LDL (low density lipoprotein) and HDL (high density lipoprotein). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad cholesterol" because too much is unhealthy – the LDL essentially drops the cholesterol in your arteries. HDL is often referred to as “good cholesterol” because it has a protective role by vacuuming up the extra cholesterol in your arteries and sending it to your liver for excretion.
Fun facts: 1. Only 10-15% of the population experience reddish urine and/or faeces after eating beetroot – this is called beeturia! It’s caused by unmetabolized betalain passing through your body, and the intensity of the colour depends on your stomach acidity, your gut bacteria, and dwell time of the beetroot in your body.
2. The beetroot pigment is also called E162 in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. It is the perfect natural, non-toxic food colorant (not all E numbers are bad!)
1. Lansley KE, et al. (2011) Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study. J Appl Physiol.
2. Sakihama Y, et al. (2012) Beetroot betalain inhibits peroxynitrite-mediated tyrosine nitration and DNA strand cleavage. Free Radic Res.
3. Tesoriere L, et al. (2003) Increased resistance to oxidation of betalain-enriched human low density lipoproteins. Free Radic Res.