Beetroot is a dark red vegetable with an acquired taste that has been linked with better stamina, improved blood flow and lower blood pressure.
But what's the truth about beetroot benefits?
Image credit: Thinkstock/Anna Kucherova
The website lovebeetroot.co.uk says the vegetable became popular in Roman times and it was used to treat fever, constipation, wounds, skin problems - and was used as an aphrodisiac.
Most beetroot on sale is round and red, but yellow, white and stripey versions are available.
The beetroot taste is described as sweet, earthy and tender to eat once cooked or pickled. It’s a root vegetable related to turnips, swedes and sugar beet. Whilst beetroot has a sweet taste, its leaves (which are also edible) taste bitter.
Beetroot has featured in recipes from top chefs including Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal.
The red colour of beetroot can be extracted and used as a natural food colourant. It has the ‘E’ number E162.
If you're considering beetroot as one of your 5-a-day, it contains potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamins A, B6 and C, folic acid, carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants and soluble fibre. Beetroot leaves are source of calcium, iron, beta-carotene, and vitamin C.
Beetroot for blood pressure management
Researchers have known for some time that juice may help lower blood pressure due to its naturally occurring nitrate content. Nitrates are also found in vegetables, fruits and processed meats.
In lab studies of healthy men, a nitrate-rich beetroot drink lowered blood pressure for a few hours after drinking, due to its effect relaxing artery walls. In athletes, nitrate-rich beetroot drinks are often taken to help improve blood flow to muscles during exercise, and to relieve some post-exercise muscle aches.
Beetroot for the brain and dementia
Blood flow studies have shown drinking beetroot juice increases blood flow to the brain for a short while in older people. Maintaining good blood circulation to the brain is associated with a reduced risk of vascular dementia, one of the main causes of dementia.
Nitrates in the food we eat and drink can be converted into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth. We then swallow these nitrites in saliva, which when absorbed into our body help dilate (widen) arteries, increasing blood flow and supplying the oxygen needs demanded by body cells.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) says beetroot contains flavonoids called anthocyanins which are responsible for the deep pigments. Anthocyanins, the BDA says, can help with recovery from the stress of exercise during training and competition as well as helping to counter the effects of pollution on the body.
Beetroot side effects
There are some interesting side effects of eating too much beetroot. It can turn urine pink, which can be mistaken for blood in the urine. It may also alter the colour of your poo – which can be used to give you an idea of how quickly food moves through your body.
Kidney stones are painful stones made sometimes from calcium oxalate. If you suffer from renal oxalate stones, make sure you drink plenty of fluid (not coffee) and cut down on dietary oxalates from green leafy vegetables (including beetroot leaves), rhubarb, chocolate, cashews and peanuts.
Population studies across countries show that a high intake of fruits and vegetables (at least 5-a-day) helps manage blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. This might be in part due to their nitrate content, but as the amounts of nitrate vary widely in these it’s more likely due to their vitamin, mineral and phytochemical content, too. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is best for health benefits.
Whether drinking ‘dried greens’ as part of a smoothie, or a beetroot ‘shot’ drink, it’s important to realise that substances in these processed vegetable products may be far higher than naturally occurring in the diet.
Nitrites - formed in our saliva by mouth bacteria working on nitrates - can interact with dietary protein in the stomach to potentially make substances called nitrosamines. The majority of nitrosamines are carcinogenic (cancer causing) in animals and this is likely to be similar in humans. Research has not been done to show whether taking nitrate-rich vegetable drinks long term is safe in terms of nitrosamine levels with a high nitrate diet.
The nitrosamine effect is similar to the risk from processed meats, where the nitrite content of bacon or sausages interacts with meat protein to form nitrosamines. Vitamin C rich foods may help reduce nitrosamine formation.
In summary, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides you with nitrates and other substances that help reduce blood pressure and lowers your risk of heart disease. Taking high dose nitrate drinks has been shown in research studies to have short-acting benefits on blood pressure and improved blood flow, but the safety of concentrated-nitrate foods and drinks taken regularly over a number of years has yet to be proven.
You need your mouth bacteria to make the essential conversion of nitrates into nitrites. But remember if you use a mouthwash you kill off mouth bacteria that cause tooth decay - but also stop dietary nitrates from being converted into nitrites that have the blood-pressure lowering effect.
Dietitian reviewed by Catherine Collins RD