Just Beet It: Part One

beetsWhat’s New and Beneficial About Beets

Beets are a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. Betanin and vulgaxanthin are the two best-studied betalains from beets, and both have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. The detox support provided by betalains includes support of some especially important Phase 2 detox steps involving glutathione. Although you can see these betalain pigments in other foods (like the stems of chard or rhubarb), the concentration of betalains in the peel and flesh of beets gives you an unexpectedly great opportunity for these health benefits.

Unlike some other food pigments, betalains undergo very steady loss from food as the length of cooking time is increased. For example, one recent study has shown the red betalain pigments in beets to be far less heat stable than red anthocyanin pigments in red cabbage. The difference between 15 minutes of steaming versus 25 minutes of steaming, or 60 minutes of roasting versus 90 minutes of roasting can be significant in terms of betalain damage. For these reasons, we recommend that you keep beet steaming times to 15 minutes or less, and roasting times under an hour.

An estimated 10-15% of all U.S. adults experience beeturia (a reddening of the urine) after consumption of beets in everyday amounts. While this phenomenon is not considered harmful in and of itself, it may be a possible indicator of the need for healthcare guidance in one particular set of circumstances involving problems with iron metabolism. Individuals with iron deficiency, iron excess, or specific problems with iron metabolism are much more likely to experience beeturia than individuals with healthy iron metabolism. For this reason, if you experience beeturia and have any reason to suspect iron-related problems, we recommend a healthcare consult to follow up on possible issues related to iron status.

In recent lab studies on human tumor cells, betanin pigments from beets have been shown to lessen tumor cell growth through a number of mechanisms, including inhibition of pro-inflammatory enzymes (specifically, cyclooxygenase enzymes). The tumor cell types tested in these studies include tumor cells from colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate and testicular tissue. While lab studies by themselves are not proof of beets’ anti-cancer benefits, the results of these studies are encouraging researchers to look more closely than ever at the value of betanins and other betalains in beets for both prevention and treatment of certain cancer types.

There has been some confusion about the nutritional value of beets in terms of their lutein/zeaxanthin content. (Lutein and zeaxanthin are two carotenoid phytonutrients that play an important role in health, and especially eye health.) Beet greens are usually a valuable source of lutein/zeaxanthin. One cup of raw beet greens may contain over 275 micrograms of lutein! Beet roots are not nearly so concentrated in lutein, although some beet roots – like the roots of yellow beets – may be valuable sources of this carotenoid. (Lutein can contribute to the yellow color of vegetables, and so yellow root vegetables—like yellow carrots or yellow beets—often contain more lutein than orange or red versions of these foods.)

WHFoods Recommendations

Foods belonging to the chenopod family — including beets, chard, spinach and quinoa — continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. The red and yellow betalain pigments found in this food family, their unique epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids, and the special connection between their overall phytonutrients and our nervous system health (including our specialized nervous system organs like the eye) point to the chenopod family of foods as unique in their health value. While we have yet to see large-scale human studies that point to a recommended minimum intake level for foods from this botanical family, we have seen data on chenopod phytonutrients, and based on this data, we recommend that you include foods from the chenopod family in your diet 1-2 times per week. In the case of a root food like beetroot, we recommend a serving size of at least one-half whole medium beet, and even more beneficial, at least 1 whole medium beet so that you can also benefit from their nutrient-rich greens.

If long cooking times deter you from cooking beets, our Healthiest Way of Cooking beets will help you prepare them in just 15 minutes. Cut medium beets into quarters without removing the skin. Steam and serve as a great vegetable side dish or as a wonderful addition to your favorite salad.

It is often difficult to believe how the hardy, crunchy, often rough-looking exterior of raw beets can be transformed into something wonderfully soft and buttery once they are cooked.

Health Benefits

Remember all those legendary Russian centenarians? Beets, frequently consumed either pickled or in borscht, the traditional Russian soup, may be one reason behind their long and healthy lives. These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer.

Promote Optimal Health

The pigments that give beets their rich colors are called betalains. There are two basic types of betalains: betacyanins and betaxanthins. Betacyanins are pigments are red-violet in color. Betanin is the best studied of the betacyanins. Betaxanthins are yellowish in color. In light or dark red, crimson, or purple colored beets, betacyanins are the dominant pigments. In yellow beets, betaxanthins predominate, and particularly the betaxanthin called vulgaxanthin. All betalains come from the same original molecule (betalamic acid). The addition of amino acids or amino acid derivatives to betalamic acid is what determines the specific type of pigment that gets produced. The betalain pigments in beets are water-soluble, and as pigments they are somewhat unusual due to their nitrogen content. Many of the betalains function both as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules. At the same time, they themselves are also very vulnerable to oxidation (change in structure due to interaction with oxygen). In addition to beets, rhubarb, chard, amaranth, prickly pear cactus, and Nopal cactus are examples of foods that contain betalains.

It’s interesting to note that humans appear to vary greatly in their response to dietary betalains. In the United States, only 10-15% of adults are estimated to be “betalain responders.” A betalain responder is a person who has the capacity to absorb and metabolize enough betalains from beet (and other foods) to gain full antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and Phase 2 triggering benefits. (Phase 2 is the second step in our cellular detoxification process).

Antioxidant Benefits

What’s most striking about beets is not the fact that they are rich in antioxidants; what’s striking is the unusual mix of antioxidants that they contain. We’re used to thinking about vegetables as rich in antioxidant carotenoids, and in particular, beta-carotene; among all well-studied carotenoids, none is more commonly occurring in vegetables than beta-carotene.

When it comes to antioxidant phytonutrients that give most red vegetables their distinct color, we’ve become accustomed to thinking about anthocyanins. (Red cabbage, for example, gets it wonderful red color primarily from anthocyanins.) Beets demonstrate their antioxidant uniqueness by getting their red color primarily from betalain antioxidant pigments (and not primarily from anthocyanins). Coupled with their status as a very good source of the antioxidants vitamin C and manganese, the unique phytonutrients in beets provide antioxidant support in a different way than other antioxidant-rich vegetables. While research is largely in the early stage with respect to beet antioxidants and their special benefits for eye health and overall nerve tissue health, we expect to see study results showing these special benefits and recognizing beets as a standout vegetable in this area of antioxidant support.

Anti-Inflammatory Benefits

Many of the unique phytonutrients present in beets have been shown to function as anti-inflammatory compounds. In particular, this anti-inflammatory activity has been demonstrated for betanin, isobetanin, and vulgaxanthin. One mechanism allowing these phytonutrients to lessen inflammation is their ability to inhibit the activity of cyclo-oxygenase enzymes (including both COX-1 and COX-2). The COX enzymes are widely used by cells to produce messaging molecules that trigger inflammation. Under most circumstances, when inflammation is needed, this production of pro-inflammatory messaging molecules is a good thing. However, under other circumstances, when the body is undergoing chronic, unwanted inflammation, production of these inflammatory messengers can make things worse. Several types of heart disease—including atherosclerosis—are characterized by chronic unwanted inflammation. For this reason, beets have been studied within the context of heart disease, and there are some encouraging although very preliminary results in this area involving animal studies and a few very small scale human studies. Type 2 diabetes—another health problem associated with chronic, unwanted inflammation—is also an area of interest in this regard, with research findings at a very preliminary stage.

In addition to their unusual betalain and carotenoid phytonutrients, however, beets are also an unusual source of betaine. Betaine is a key body nutrient made from the B-complex vitamin, choline. (Specifically, betaine is simply choline to which three methyl groups have been attached.) In and of itself, choline is a key vitamin for helping regulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system since adequate choline is important for preventing unwanted build-up of homocysteine. (Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with unwanted inflammation and risk of cardiovascular problems like atherosclerosis.) But betaine may be even more important in regulation of our inflammatory status as its presence in our diet has been associated with lower levels of several inflammatory markers, including C reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha. As a group, the anti-inflammatory molecules found in beets may eventually be shown to provide cardiovascular benefits in large-scale human studies, as well as anti-inflammatory benefits for other body systems.

Support of Detoxification

The betalin pigments present in beets have repeatedly been shown to support activity in our body’s Phase 2 detoxification process. Phase 2 is the metabolic step that our cells use to hook activated, unwanted toxic substances up with small nutrient groups. This “hook up” process effectively neutralizes the toxins and makes them sufficiently water-soluble for excretion in the urine. One critical “hook up” process during Phase 2 involves an enzyme family called the glutathione-S-transferase family (GSTs). GSTs hook toxins up with glutathione for neutralization and excretion from the body. The betalains found in beet have been shown to trigger GST activity, and to aid in the elimination of toxins that require glutathione for excretion. If you are a person who thinks about exposure to toxins and wants to give your body as much detox support as possible, beets are a food that belongs in your diet.

Other Health Benefits

It’s important to note two other areas of potential health benefits associated with beets: anti-cancer benefits and fiber-related benefits. The combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules in beets makes this food a highly-likely candidate for risk reduction of many cancer types. Lab studies on human tumor cells have confirmed this possibility for colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate and testicular cancers. Eventually, we expect to see large-scale human studies that show the risk-reducing effect of dietary beet intake for many of these cancer types.

Beet fiber has also been a nutrient of increasing interest in health research. While many people tend to lump all food fiber into one single category called “dietary fiber,” there is evidence to suggest that all dietary fiber is not the same. Beet fiber (along with carrot fiber) are two specific types of food fiber that may provide special health benefits, particularly with respect to health of our digestive tract (including prevention of colon cancer) and our cardiovascular system. Some beet fiber benefits may be due to the pectin polysaccharides that significantly contribute to the total fiber content.

Courtesy of The World’s Healthiest Foods.

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