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.