Beetroot (2004)

Stephen Nottingham

© Copyright: Stephen Nottingham 2004


6. Health and Nutrition

The Ancients ¦¦ The Herbalists ¦¦ A Cure for Cancer? ¦¦ Betalains ¦¦ HIV/Aids in Africa ¦¦ Nutritional Composition ¦¦ Popeye's Spinach ¦¦ Geosmin ¦¦ Folates and Pregnancy ¦¦ Betaine ¦¦ Juicing ¦¦ Beetroot and Sex ¦¦ Bibliography


Cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris have been utilized for their medicinal properties since ancient times. Beetroot has long been considered beneficial to the blood, the heart, and the digestive system. It has been regarded as a laxative; a cure for bad breath, coughs and headaches; and even as an aphrodisiac. More recently, it has been advocated as a cancer preventative and as a means of bolstering the immune system. Beetroot is rich in many important minerals and micronutrients; it is a nutritious vegetable with many health-giving properties. This chapter examines the medicinal and nutritional benefits of eating beetroot.

The Ancients

Beta vulgaris has long been regarded as a medicinal plant. In Roman times it was used to treat fevers, constipation and other ailments. Although cultivated Beta vulgaris was widely consumed as a green vegetable in Roman times, the roots were mainly taken medicinally. Dioscorides (in De Materia Medica) and Galen, for example, both refer to the root of white beet as a medicine.

In Apicius’ The Art of Cooking, as noted in Chapter Two, there are five recipes for broth to be used as a laxative, of which three contain the roots of beet. In the first, very small beets (Betas Minutas) are boiled in water with leeks in a shallow pan. Pepper and cumin are pounded, moistened with liquamen and passum, and added to the pan. The mixture is boiled and the broth is served immediately. Liquamen is a sauce used in lieu of salt in Roman times. It contained anchovies or other fish and was made in factories that produced their own distinct brands. Passum is a very sweet Roman wine.

In the second recipe, the main ingredient is polypody (Polypodium vulgare) and beetroot is not included. The rhizome of polypody is cooked, pushed through a sieve, mixed with pounded pepper and cumin, and bought to the boil in water. The broth is drunk warm. The Greek physician Dioscorides had previously described the rhizome of polypody as a laxative. Polypodium vulgare contains osladin, a sweet-tasting saponin. It is listed in modern herbals for its mild purgative, expectorant and digestive properties.

In the third recipe, bunches of beetroot (betaciorum) are wiped down (not washed), sprinkled with cooking soda, and placed into water. When they have cooked, passum or caroenum is added, along with a sprinkling of cumin and pepper, and a little oil. This is bought back to the boil, and pounded polypody and chopped nuts are added in liquamen. The broth is used at once. Caroenum is a reduction of wine that has been boiled down to two-thirds of it original volume. Whereas wine is added and boiled down in volume as part of the cooking process today, in Roman times a range of pre-reduced wines were available to the cook, which could be added toward the end of cooking. In this recipe, both leaves and roots of Beta vulgaris may have been added to the pot together (Apicius has previously informed us that cooking-soda is added to greens to make them appear bright green). Polypody is added, which has known purgative effects, along with cumin, which the Romans used like pepper.

In the fourth recipe, attributed to Varro, beetroot (betacios) is rubbed clean and cooked in mulsum with a little salt and oil, or boiled in water and oil with salt, to make a broth. The broth is better if a chicken has been previously cooked in it. Mulsum is a drink of wine and honey, which is also used for cooking. Dry white wine is apparently the best wine to mix with honey. As a drink, it is chilled and enjoyed with the starter. This prototype beetroot soup may have led Apicius to consider preparing beetroot in further ways. The fifth and final laxative recipe is a broth made from celery and leeks.

Hippocrates advocates the use of beet leaves as binding (bandages). He uses beets as binding, for example, after the treatment of fistulae with ointments, in On Fistulae (400 BC). Fistulae are long abscesses or ulcers under the skin. Juice from the leaf bindings was thought to aid the healing process. In On the Articulation, Hippocrates uses leaves of beet or coltsfoot boiled in dark-coloured wine as an application to wounds.

In the Talmud, the book containing the civil and canonical Jewish laws, written in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, the rabbis recommend, “eating beetroot, drinking mead and bathing in the Euphrates”, as part of a prescription for a long and healthy life.

The Herbalists

After the Middle Ages, beetroot came to be used as a treatment for numerous illnesses, mainly those relating to digestion and the blood.

Platina writing in his seminal De Honesta in 1460 notes that beetroot is a cure for bad breath, especially "garlic breath". He recommends toasting beetroot over coals and eating it with garlic, to nullify the excessive odour of garlic on the breath.

In his Herball of 1597, John Gerard notes that the juice from boiled White Beet, “conveighed up into the nostril doth gently draw forth flegme, and purgeth the head”. Nicholas Culpeper, however, in his Herball of 1653 says that it is the juice from the root of the red beet that, “put into the nostrils purgeth the head, helpeth the noise in the ears, and the toothache”. Furthermore, if the juice is snuffed up the nose, it cures stinking breath. Culpeper says that juice from white beet, “is good for the headache and swimmings therein, and all affections of the brain”, while “put into the nostrils, it purges the head”. He also records that beetroot juice applied to the temples, “stayeth inflammations in the eyes”. Culpeper was misled into making distinctions between white and red beet, which have very similar properties, by astrology. According to Culpeper, Jupiter governs white beet and Saturn governs red beet. He concludes from this that white and red beets have distinct medical virtues. Unfortunately, astrology is still marring assessments of herbal remedies in the twenty-first century.

In medieval England, beetroot juice or broth was recommended as an easily digested food for the aged, weak or infirm. John Parkinson, in A Garden of Pleasant Flowers (1629), writes that the leaves of beets are much used to mollify and open the belly, while the roots of white beet scrapped and mixed with a little honey and salt will provoke stools if rubbed on the belly. Culpeper in his Herball (1653) notes that, “White Beet doth much loosen the belly, and is of a cleansing and digesting quality and provoketh urine. The juice of it openeth obstructions both of the liver and spleen”.

There is an old saying to the effect that beetroot is good for the blood. It has often been described as “blood-building”, a tonic or detoxifier of the blood, or as an aid to effective blood circulation. The red colour of beetroot has reinforced its association with the blood. This may have resulted in its blood-building properties being oversold. However, both the roots and leaves of beetroot contain iron, potassium and folic acid. Iron is at the centre of the haemoglobin molecule, the red pigment in the red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. Potassium, along with other minerals and vitamins may help to regulate blood pressure and heartbeat. Folic acid has been shown to have a positive effect on certain anaemias. In this respect, beetroot is a tonic to the blood and heart. Modern herbals describe beetroot as being mildly cardio-tonic.

Since the time of the early herbals, beetroot has been recommended to treat menstrual problems. Culpeper notes, in his seventeenth century Herball, that, “The red beet is good to stay the bloody flux, woman’s courses and the whites, and to help the yellow jaundice”. The relatively high levels of iron and manganese, in particular, help to alleviate problems caused by heavy bleeding, which lower haemoglobin levels in the blood.

Anglo-Saxons Britons used juice extracted from pounded Beta vulgaris roots as a bone-salve, an emetic, and as a treatment for wounds and bites. Culpeper notes that the juice of white beet acts as a balm to burns, when used without oil, and is also good for all wheals, blisters, and blains of the skin. White beet leaves boiled and laid on chilblains are said to cure them. Culpeper also writes that a decoction of white beet in water and some vinegar will heal itches if they are bathed with it.

A decoction is generally defined in Culpeper as taking a root and simmering it over a fire until the liquid has reduced by a third. The root broth is strained and the liquid is drunk. This decoction is said to also, “cleanseth the head of dandruff, scurf, and dry scabs, and relieves running sores, ulcers, and cankers in the head, legs, or other parts, and is much commended against baldness and shedding of the hair”.

Most of the skin-related applications of beet juice in Culpeper and other herbals of his time do not make it into modern herbals. There would seem to be more effective treatments for these conditions. However, beetroot juice is still recommended, for instance in the modern juicing literature, as a herbal remedy to ease piles or haemorrhoids (see later).

Culpeper also records that beetroot juice is effective against all venomous creatures, presumably snakes and other organisms that inject poisons into the blood. However, there is no known substance in beetroot that can detoxify snake venom or other poisons. Another claim made in the herbals, which persists in some of the modern lifestyle and health literature, is that beetroot juice acts to boost brainpower. Apart from its contribution to a generally healthy diet, there is probably nothing unique in beetroot that elevates IQ.

The ancients and the herbalists therefore prescribed Beta vulgaris for a number of medical conditions. Many of these applications appear ill-conceived in the light of modern knowledge, although science provides support for several traditional beetroot treatments. The medicinal properties of beets have, nevertheless, been periodically dismissed as of little value. Mrs. Grieve notes in 1931 in A Modern Herbal, for example, that “of old beetroot was considered to have distinct medicinal properties”, but concludes, “modern medicine disregards the Beet”. However, since the 1930s, with notable setbacks, beetroot has undergone a revival as a herbal remedy and as a treatment for modern diseases, especially cancer.

A Cure for Cancer?

In his book Plants Used Against Cancer, Jonathan Hartwell notes many instances of Beta vulgaris being used to treat various cancerous conditions throughout history. Beetroot has mainly been prepared as a decoction, with the root juice being drunk, although poultices are occasionally specified. The conditions treated have included tumours of the intestines, head, leg, genitals and rectum, lung cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer and leukaemia. Many of the reports, however, have either been anecdotal or from studies with small numbers of patients.

Beetroot has been used as a treatment for cancer in Europe for several centuries. In Rosenberg’s review of the literature, he notes that J.F. Osiander of Göttingen used beetroot as a treatment for tumours of the nose in 1826. However, the modern interest in beetroot as a treatment for cancer dates from around 1930. Two German doctors (Farberse and Schoenenberger) used beetroot to treat cancer patients in 1929. In 1939, a Hungarian professor (Bakay) carried out experiments on patients with cancers, including leukaemia, and observed improvements in their general condition.

Erdos, a Mexican travelling in Europe and Africa in 1939, collected some of the anecdotal evidence for beetroot and cancer. He describes meeting a healer in the Atlas Mountains, for example, who claimed to have successfully treated malignant tumours with beetroot. Erdos also recalls meeting a healer in Yugoslavia who pointed out that in areas of the country where large quantities of beetroot are eaten, no fatal cancers of the stomach or lung are reported.

The therapeutic use of beetroot in cancer treatment came to prominence with the work of the Hungarian physician Alexander Ferenczi in the 1950s. He introduced a revolutionary new treatment for cancer using nothing but raw beetroot juice. In his papers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, he reported remarkable success in treating cancer patients. His patients suffered from a range of different cancers. His reputation grew and beetroot juice became a sought-after treatment for cancer. Ferenczi’s treatment was based on consuming a litre of beetroot juice daily, for at least two to three months.

However, Ferenczi’s claims for beetroot are almost certainly overstated. His 1957 and 1961 papers, for example, were based on studies involving only 18 and 16 patients, respectively. The nature of the pigment in beetroot was also uncertain in the 1950s. Ferenczi thought the red colour was due to anthocyanins, and he claimed a similar effect for red wine due to the presence of the same pigments. Although red wine has anthocyanins, the red colour in beetroot is known to be due to betalains, which are unlikely to have the same physiological function. The tide turned against Ferenczi at a medical congress in 1979 when his peers criticized the unconvincing evidence he presented.

Nevertheless, beetroot contains several compounds with suspected anti-cancer properties, including the alkaloid allantoine. In the 1960s, allantoine was shown to have an anti-tumour effect by Constantinescu, working in Romania. Beetroot extracts normalized the respiration of isolated cancer cells in several laboratory studies conducted in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, cell culture and animal studies, such as those conducted by Edenharder et al. and Kapadia et al., respectively, confirmed that beetroot juice had significant tumour-inhibiting and antimutagenic effects. In a review of the subject, Rosenberg concluded that beetroot’s effect on cancer cells is probably due to the combined effects of betanin, allantoine, vitamin C and other compounds present, such as farnesol and rutine.

Beetroot is probably not a cure for cancer along the lines advocated by Ferenczi. In 1988, Weiss concluded that, “beetroot cannot be regarded as a genuine cancer treatment. It may however have a strengthening effect, improving the general health of the patient”. Recent research on beetroot juice and cancer strongly suggest that beetroot can play a beneficial role in cancer prevention.

A high intake of vegetables and fruits can reduce the risk of developing cancer and other disease. Beetroot has unique chemicals (e.g. betalains) and high levels of important micronutrients, which make it a valuable vegetable to include in the diet as a means of deterring the onset of cancer and other diseases. The betalains, for instance, act as antioxidants (see below).

Just as the Romans drank glasses of beetroot juice for their health, today a daily glass of beetroot juice is one of the recommended methods to lower the risk of developing cancer. Beetroot juice frequently features among the foods in anti-cancer diets in the alternative health literature. “Bio-Beet” and other dried beetroot powder preparations, for example, are marketed as food supplements to protect against cancer and other illnesses. Powdered preparations are made without subjecting the beets to high temperatures that would degrade minerals and vitamins. Freeze dried beetroot, in powdered form or cubes, is also available from specialist suppliers.


In Chapter Five, the betalains were introduced as characteristic pigments of beetroot. Unlike other classes of plant pigments, the betalains have a restricted distribution. The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is practically the only other edible source of betalains. Recent research has identified the betalains as being dietary antioxidants.

A number of different antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, including flavonoids and phenolic compounds. These are important to human health because they prevent the oxidative processes that contribute to the onset of many diseases. Oxidative reactions occur when free radicals are generated in the body. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an unpaired (spare) electron, which makes them extremely reactive. They can cause injury to cells and metabolic processes due to their excessively reactive nature. Antioxidants act to mop up or scavenge free radicals. This prevents them causing damaging oxidative reactions.

Betanin is the most prevalent betalain in red beets, which typically contain large quantities of it (e.g. 300-600 mg/kg). In laboratory studies, betanin has been shown to inhibit a wide range of oxidative reactions (e.g. lipid peroxidation and the decomposition of heme in the blood) that have negative effects in the body. Betaxanthins (yellow and orange betalain pigments) also have antiradical activity, although to a lesser extent than betanin. Betanin is taken up effectively in the gut, with very little being excreted under normal conditions. It is a dietary antioxidant with a particularly high bioavailability. You do not need to eat much beetroot for it to be beneficial. Kanner and co-workers concluded in 2001 that, “red beet products used regularly in the diet may provide protection against certain oxidative stress-related disorders in humans”.

HIV/Aids in Africa

Beetroot is generally considered to prevent illness by bolstering the immune system. Where the immune system is targeted by disease, consuming beetroot as part of a health-promoting diet can help the body fight the severity of the disease. In the influential booklet Positive Health, David Orr and his partner David Patient advocate beetroot as part of a diet designed to maintain the health of the immune system, for people living with the HIV retrovirus that causes Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Patient has been HIV positive since 1983.

Positive Health shows HIV positive individuals how to maintain the health of their immune systems, in order to delay the onset of Aids for many years. Nutrition plays an important role, alongside an active life-style. Orr recommends eating food from three groups each day: building foods (e.g. meat, beans, eggs), energy foods (e.g. rice, bread), and protector foods (e.g. fruits and vegetables). Foods that include antioxidants are particularly recommended, along with foods rich in vitamins and micronutrients such as selenium. Beetroot, garlic and ginger are noted for their range of beneficial properties. Kitchen gardens have a positive role, while sugar-rich food and alcohol is to be avoided. The booklet contains specific suggestions for Africa. Orr has acted as a consultant to African governments, including the one in Mozambique.

Controversy arose in South Africa, however, when a dietary approach to HIV/Aids was advocated at the expense of anti-retroviral drugs. Beetroot and other health-promoting items in the diet are not a cure for HIV/Aids. They are beneficial in helping to keep the disease contained, but are not a substitute for medicinal drugs. The only known medical treatment with a hope of curing HIV/Aids is anti-retroviral drugs.

The problem in South Africa started in 1999, when President Thabo Mbeki, of the African National Congress (ANC) party, refused to acknowledge the link between HIV and Aids, thereby calling into question the validity of expensive anti-retroviral drug treatments. The Health Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang advocated a diet rich in beetroot, lemon juice, olive oil, ginger, garlic, spinach and African potatoes (Hypoxis rooperii - not a potato) for those diagnosed with HIV. This was a positive policy. However, this nutritional approach was not accompanied by a policy to facilitate people getting access to anti-retroviral drug treatments.

South Africa has one of the highest Aids rates in the world, with around 5.3 million people (about one in nine of the population) living with HIV or Aids. By 2003, the disease was killing around 600 people a day. The five-year delay in utilizing anti-retroviral drugs in South African represents a major policy failure in the fight against HIV/Aids.

The dietary approach to living with HIV became widely criticized, because it was being advocated instead of anti-retroviral drugs. Beetroot became a word of abuse to fling at ANC politicians in South Africa in the months leading up to the general election of April 2004, in which Aids was an important issue., for instance, took to calling the Health Minister a beetroot. The ANC was re-elected, but with a changed policy on HIV/Aids treatment. They agreed on a programme to distribute free Aids drugs just weeks before the date of the election.

The demonization of beetroot is unfortunate, as it can play an important part in an immune-boosting diet for people living with HIV/Aids. A combination of drugs and holistic approaches should be available to fight this terrible disease. If anti-retroviral drugs are given in the absence of a healthy diet, for instance, they can have a counter-productive effect on the body. Nutrition and medication act in a complementary manner.

Nutritional Composition

Beetroot is a nutritious vegetable that is an ideal component of a healthy diet. In Britain, the advice is to consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. More specific advice from some nutritionists is to select fruit and vegetables of different colours to eat as your daily portions: the “red, amber, green rule”. In terms of vegetables, this could include beetroot (red), carrots (amber) and spinach (green). This recognizes the important role played by plant pigments in disease prevention.

Beetroot is a rich source of carbohydrates, a good source of protein, and has high levels of important vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. It is a good source of dietary fibre, has practically no fat, and no cholesterol. This makes beetroot relatively low in calories (kilojoules). One small beet root (40g) provides around 1.6g of dietary fibre and 75kJ of energy, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Food and Nutrition.

In the analysis presented in McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods, 100g of raw beetroot (peeled, but not grated) contains 87.1g of water, 7.6g of carbohydrate, 1.7g of protein and 0.1g of fat. It provides 154 kJ (36 kcal) of energy.

The same amount of beetroot boiled for 45 minutes contains 82.4g water, 9.5g carbohydrate, 2.3g protein and 0.1g fat. It provides 195 kJ (46 kcal) of energy.

Pickled beetroot (drained), in comparison, contains 88.6g water, 5.6g carbohydrate, 1.2g protein and 0.2g fat, per 100g. It provides 117 kJ (28 kcal) of energy.

Boiling beetroot increases its carbohydrate and protein content compared to raw beetroot, with a corresponding increase in energy value. Pickling boiled beetroot decreases the carbohydrate and protein content (to a level below raw beetroot), with a corresponding decrease in energy value. Acetic acid (vinegar) will contribute to the energy value of pickled beetroot, however, if it is eaten undrained.

Beetroot is often recommended in calorie-controlled diets because of its relatively low calorific value. In the literature, a figure of around 35 to 45 calories is usually given for 100g of beetroot. The figure is usually lower for raw beetroot, often around 35 calories, but sometimes as low as 17 calories, per 100g.

In McCance and Widdowson, raw beetroot has 0.27g of total nitrogen per 100g, while boiled and pickled beetroot have 0.37g and 0.19g, respectively. This reflects the relative protein content, but also traces of nitrates (see below). Of the different groups of fatty acids, all beetroot preparations contain only trace amounts of saturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and 0.1g of polyunsaturated fatty acid, per 100g. Cholesterol is not present in any beetroot preparation.

Raw beetroot contains 7.0g total sugars, while boiled and pickled beetroot contain 8.8g and 5.6g, respectively. Most of the carbohydrate in raw and boiled beetroot, and practically all of it in pickled beetroot, comprises sugars. Beetroot is slightly higher in carbohydrates than most other vegetables, but has one of the highest sugar contents of any vegetable. This is not surprising when one considers that sugar beet was bred from beetroot in the nineteenth century. Because of its relatively high sugar content, beetroot is not usually recommended as a vegetable to diabetics. Of the remaining carbohydrate, raw beetroot contains 0.6g starch per 100g, while boiled beetroot contains 0.7g. However, only trace amounts of starch occur in pickled beetroot. Dietary fibre is around 2.8g, 2.3g and 2.5g per 100g of raw, boiled and pickled beetroot, respectively.

Beetroot is a good source of minerals. The mineral content of beetroot, given by McCance and Widdowson, however, can be markedly different with different preparation methods. Raw, boiled and pickled beetroot contain 66g sodium (Na) and 380g potassium (K), 110g Na and 510 K, and 120 Na and 190 K, respectively. Boiled beetroot is particularly high in potassium. Calcium (Ca) ranges from 19g in pickled to 29g in boiled beetroot, while magnesium (Mg) is lowest in raw beetroot with 11g and is also highest in boiled beetroot with 16g, per 100g of root. Pickled beet has a lower level of phosphorous (P), only 11g, than raw beetroot with 51g and boiled beetroot with 87g per 100g. Iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn) are 0.5g and 0.3 g in pickled beetroot, compared to 1.0g and 0.4g in raw and 0.8 and 0.5g in boiled beetroot, respectively. The iron content of beetroot is comparable to other vegetables. Its image as a high iron food to combat anaemia has therefore often been overstated. Chlorine (Cl) levels are much higher in pickled beetroot - 210g per 100g of root, due to the presence of acetic acid, compared to raw beetroot with 59g, while levels are too low to detect in boiled beetroot. Manganese (Mn) is present at 0.7g, 0.9g and 0.2g per 100g of root in raw, boiled and pickled beetroot, respectively. Traces of selenium (Se) occur with all preparation methods, but iodine (I) is absent.

Folate (folic acid) occurs in higher levels in beetroot than in most other vegetables. McCance and Widdowson found 150mg and 110mg of folate per 100g in raw and boiled beetroot, respectively. Only 2mg folate per 100g, however, occurs in pickled beetroot. Raw and boiled beetroot have 20mg and 27mg of carotene, respectively, although only traces occur in pickled beetroot. Raw and boiled beetroot have 5mg of Vitamin C per 100g, but it is absent in pickled beetroot. Pantothenate varies from 0.12mg to 0.10mg per 100g of beetroot. Vitamin B6 has 0.03mg to 0.04mg, thiamin 0.01mg to 0.02mg, riboflavin 0.01mg to 0.03mg, and niacin (nicotinic acid) 0.1mg, per 100g in all beetroot preparations. Trace levels of vitamin E and biotin occur in all cases. However, no traces of retinol, vitamin D or vitamin B12 were detected in beetroot.

Popeye's Spinach

The leaves of beetroot, and other cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris, are rich in minerals and vitamins, in particular vitamins A and C, beta-carotene and other carotenes, potassium, iron and folic acid.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) has leaves with a similar vitamin and mineral content to Beta vulgaris. Both plant species are in the family Chenopodiaceae. However, spinach is more celebrated for its health effects than leaf beets or beetroot leaves. This may have something to do with its number one sponsor: Popeye. In an article in The Lancet in 1971, Richard Hunter asks, “Why did Popeye take spinach?” Why not, say, Swiss chard? The answer takes us back to the 1930s, when Max Fleischer was creating Popeye and casting around for an instant restorative and energizer for his hero to take in times of adversity. It had been reported by the 1920s that spinach was rich in iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. Americans rapidly increasing their consumption of the vegetable, which was being promoted on the basis of its health-giving composition. Hunter relates that spinach production rose from 5,000 to 105,000 acres in just a couple of years. Its rising popularity at the time and its image as a healthy vegetable made it a natural choice for Popeye. However, Hunter acknowledges that none of the minerals and vitamins recorded from spinach in the 1930s could possibly account for Popeye’s astonishing feats of vigour. The exceptionally high level of iron reported for spinach in the 1920s was itself fictional. The figure originated from work done by E. von Wolf in 1870. When his work was reanalysed in 1937 it was found that a decimal point had been misplaced, and spinach only had one-tenth the iron content that was claimed. Furthermore, most of the iron in spinach is bound to oxalic acid (the substance that gives it a “furry” mouthfeel), and cannot be utilized by the human body. Spinach’s iron levels are in no way superior to those of leaf beets. Popeye could just have well slugged down spinach beet!

Since the 1930s, spinach has been identified as a rich source of folic acid. In 1937, a medical trial using spinach extract showed promising results as a treatment against a type of anaemia (deficiency in red blood cells). In 1941, the active factor from spinach leaf extract was described. It produced optimal growth of beneficial bacteria, when it was added to the synthetic growth media on which they were cultured. This factor was a new vitamin in the vitamin B complex called folic acid, named after folium (the Latin word for leaf). In 1945, folic acid became available as a treatment for certain types of anaemia. Leaf beets and beetroot leaves have similarly high levels of folic acid.

On a more cautious note, spinach, beetroot and lettuce were identified as having relatively high nitrate levels in a study conducted by the Ministry of Farming, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in the UK (archived by its successor the Food Standards Agency). Beetroot had 1211mg of nitrate per Kg, which was more than for most vegetables surveyed. This was for commercial beetroot and levels may be lower for home-produced beetroot, in the absence of intensive farming methods. Nitrate is not in itself harmful, and vegetables provide most of the nitrates in our diet. On storage, however, nitrate can chemically reduce to nitrite, which in high quantities may cause vomiting, diarrhoea, and possibly methaemoglobinaemia in infants.


Beetroot is good for you, but some people are put off by an “earthy” characteristic in its flavour. This “earthiness” is due to a volatile chemical called geosmin. The levels of geosmin vary between cultivars. In a study of four cultivars conducted by Lu and co-workers in the USA, Detroit Dark Red had the lowest concentrations (9.7 mg/kg) and Chioggia had the highest concentrations (26.7 mg/kg) of geosmin. Detroit is a popular commercial cultivar in the USA, while Chioggia is a heritage variety that is largely unimproved. Geosmin levels can be analysed during selection in plant breeding programmes, to obtain cultivars with (bland) flavours acceptable to the tastebuds of supermarket-shoppers.

Folates and Pregnancy

Beetroot is an excellent source of folates, including folic acid (tetrahydrofolate). Both the greens and roots of beetroot have been recommended for women who are planning to get pregnant, because they provide a good source of folic acid, along with other beneficial vitamins and minerals. Folic acid is a vitamin (in the vitamin B complex) that functions as a carrier of carbon units in a variety of metabolic reactions in the body. It is essential for the synthesis of compounds called purines and pyrimidines, which play an important role in developmental processes. Foods such as beetroot, green-leaf vegetables, liver and kidneys are rich in folates. As noted above, grated raw beetroot is better than cooked beetroot, while pickled beetroot is a much poorer source of folate.

The average UK mixed folate intake in the diet is 200-300mg per day. Eating folate-rich foods can boost this, but it is advisable to also take folic acid supplements (400mg per day) prior to and during the early stages of pregnancy. Taking folic acid supplements prior to pregnancy has been shown to reduce the incidence of spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies. Catherine Zeta Jones’ pregnancy craving for beetroot and marmite, reported in the celebrity gossip magazines in the usual “irrational food” terms, is actually a nutritionally astute choice (and tasty).


Betaine is a nitrogenous compound found in beetroot. In structure, it is like an amino acid. Betaine is distinct from the betalain pigments that have previously been described. It has a different chemical structure and is more widely distributed than the betalain pigments. Betaine, for example, is also found in broccoli, spinach, legumes, eggs, fish and liver. However, Beta vulgaris provides a particularly rich source of betaine in the diet. Because of its prevalence in beets, it is one of the commonest non-sugar impurities in the juice extracted from sugar beet. Beets with high levels of sugar also have high levels of betaine. In the root it plays a role in osmosis, regulating the diffusion of water into cells as a counterbalance to their sugar content. In the past, betaine was considered a potential impurity problem in sugar. However, today it is not considered of importance, because it is inert during the processing of sugar beet juice into sucrose. However, betaine is extracted from beet juice, because it has become a valuable by-product of sugar beet processing.

Betaine is a mood modifier. In the diet, betaine-rich foods are pharmacologically active, and can have a positive effect on mood by relaxing the mind. Beetroot, because it contains betaine, is therefore a minor “mood food”, alongside ginseng and foods containing caffeine, tryptophan and other pharmacologically-active compounds. More seriously, betaine forms part of the treatment for mood disorders, particularly clinical depression, and a range of other medical conditions. Sugar beet is the main source of medicinal betaine. It is sold as a white powder, having a sweetish taste.

Clinical depression is a chronic disease that is very prevalent in industrialized countries. It has been estimated, for example, that up to one in twenty Americans suffer from clinical depression, to the extent that they require some form of treatment. Depression is closely linked to the dysfunction of neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin. Low levels of serotonin affect a range of physiological processes that result in depression. One approach to treating depression is through diet and dietary supplements. A number of compounds in foods have been shown to raise serotonin levels and induce a subsequent calming effect in patients suffering from depression. Betaine, which is also known as trimethylglycine (TMG), is one of these. Treatment with betaine (TMG) raises levels of a compound called s-adenosylmethionine (SAM), which in turn influences serotonin metabolism.

TMG and SAM are said to be “methyl donors”, because they donate methyl groups to other molecules to facilitate beneficial chemical processes. In addition to neurological effects, betaine acts a methyl donor to affect changes in the cardiovascular system, the liver and other organs.

Betaine is used to treat a genetic condition called homocystinuria. People with this condition have unusually high levels of the amino acid homocysteine (Hcy) in their blood. This chemical can be toxic and it contributes to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes. Betaine supplements, acting with other nutrients, particularly SAM, folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12, break down Hcy and prevent it from reaching toxic levels in the blood. High levels of Hcy can also occur in people without homocystinuria, who have high Hcy in their blood, for example, due to a dietary imbalance. These patients can also be treated with betaine supplements.

Betaine may also be an effective treatment for alcohol-induced liver failure. In the liver, it promotes the regeneration of liver cells and facilitates the conversion of fats. Betaine has also been advocated as a treatment for a type of hepatitis (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis), kidney disorder, and antherosclerosis. However, further research is needed to confirm the efficacy of betaine supplements in these cases. The most serious side effect of taking betaine supplements is that it may cause a body odour.


Beetroot is valued as a healthy cooked vegetable. However, when taken medicinally beetroot is usually consumed as a juice or broth. The benefits of drinking vegetable juice have long been recognized. Early in the twentieth century, Norman Walker and Bernard Jensen worked on the scientific basis of using juices as part of a daily diet. Juicing is said to enable nutrients and other beneficial chemicals to be absorbed more easily and efficiently in the gut. Three juice types form the core of their juice program: a green vegetable juice, carrot juice, and beetroot juice (“green, amber, red”). These can be drunk in combinations to provide a nutritious diet supplement. Raw beetroot, and the juice made from it, is high in carbohydrate, low in fat and is a good source of minerals, including sodium, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium, and vitamins, including folic acid, niacin and vitamin C.

The juicing movement prizes beetroot as a nutritious tonic to the immune system, through its stimulation of the lymphatic system; a source of antioxidant minerals and vitamins; and as a source of easily assimilated sugars, which provide instant energy (revitalizer). The tops of beetroot are also valued for juicing, in the same way as spinach, for being rich in folic acid, beta-carotenes, calcium and iron. Beetroot’s antioxidant chemicals, including vitamin C and beta-carotene, help fight infection and may help detoxify a range of carcinogenic chemicals. Juicing is part of the raw food movement, which promotes raw as opposed to cooked food because nutrients, enzymes, and other beneficial chemicals can often be broken down during the cooking process. While acknowledging the undoubted benefits of consuming raw beetroot, however, it should probably be consumed in moderation.

The Ancients and the herbalists referred to beetroot’s laxative properties. Today, beetroot is regarded as a mild laxative that eases constipation. Beetroot juice is regarded as having good cleansing powers when taken regularly. It is said to stimulate liver, bowel and kidney function, and enhance the elimination of toxins and wastes. In the juicing literature, fruits and vegetables with high fibre are recommended for constipation.

The following modern juice recipes can be found in Anne McIntyre’s book, which is typical of its kind. Her recipe for Hungarian beetroot and carrot cleanser simply blends together the juices of the two vegetables. It is served with a coriander garnish.

A soothing effect in the digestive system, it is claimed, makes beetroot an effective remedy for indigestion, acidity, gastritis and heartburn (where stomach acid rises up the oesophagus toward the throat). Its beneficial effects on digestion may relieve other problems associated with the stagnation of food and food toxicity, such as skin problems, headaches and lethargy.

Gerard and Culpeper noted that beetroot could be used as a decongestant. Beetroot juice is still regarded as a good decongestant, especially if taken as a hot soup or juice. The hot vapours help to clear catarrh during colds, coughs and flu. McIntyre describes Beet borscht cocktail as a “flu-busting” juice. It contains beetroot, carrot and cucumber juices, lemon juice and a dollop of yoghurt.

The herbalists noted that beetroot vapours could clear the head. In Eastern Europe, where beetroot has been an important winter root crop since at least the fifteenth century, it is still used as a treatment for headache and toothache.

Beetroot is advocated to ease piles or haemorrhoids (varicose veins forming in the anal region). McIntyre gives a recipe, aimed at easing distress, called Russian relief, which contains beetroot and celery juice, mixed with live yoghurt and topped with fresh mint leaves.

Beetroot and Sex

When people blush in embarrassment, due to a rush of blood to the skin surface, they are often described as blushing like a beetroot. In period novels this often occurs in the presence of members of the opposite sex. In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), for instance, when a young girl reads a personal message from a boy, written on a schoolroom slate, she “blushed as red as a beet and giggled”. More explicitly, purple passages of prose are described as if steeped in juices squeezed from its root.

Beetroot has on occasion been regarded as an aphrodisiac - a substance arousing sexual desire. In Roman times, juice from roots of Beta vulgaris was considered aphrodisiac. Paintings of Beta vulgaris adorn the walls of brothels in Pompeii. They are portrayed amidst carnal scenes. Seeds and other traces of beetroot have been excavated from Pompeii, a town destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Murals depicting Romans drinking glasses of “red wine” have recently been re-interpreted, and it is now thought that at least in some cases they may be drinking beetroot juice.

In a modern volume on Indian medicinal plants, Beta vulgaris is noted as being an aphrodisiac (in addition to being an expectorant, a tonic, a cough medicine, and an anti-inflammatory agent). The bitter-tasting seeds are unusually noted as being a particularly active source of these properties.

In England, beetroot production is increasing as its image is changing. No longer just a pickled relic in a glass jar, beetroot is regarded as an invigorating fresh vegetable. In July 2003, BBC News and The Guardian newspaper reported that hopes of a specialist aphrodisiac market had helped secure a government grant for Lincolnshire beetroot farmers Chris and David Moore. Chris Moore was quoted as saying, “The lads here swear by beetroot. Some of them even eat it for breakfast”. The National Farmers Union (NFU) voted Mr. Moore the sexiest farmer in the North of England in a recent poll.

Modern claims for beetroot being an aphrodisiac are based on its being a rich source of the mineral boron, which plays a role in the production of human sex hormones. While some aphrodisiacs have a scientific basis, others need only be activated by the imagination, writes Isabel Allende in Aphrodite. She describes an aphrodisiac is a bridge between gluttony and lust. The farmers in Lincolnshire do not need a scientific explanation for their aphrodisiac; they are convinced of its invigorating powers.

The British field-marshal Viscount Montgomery (1887-1976), famous for the victory of Alamein during the Second World War, encouraged his soldiers to “find favours in the beetroot fields”. In other words, he hoped to raise the morale of his troops by having them consort with local prostitutes.

Favours In The Beetroot Fields is the title of a track on British Sea Power’s debut album The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade Records, 2003). British Sea Power explore notions of landscape and memory in their songs, particularly the lingering effects of the British Empire. When playing live, they wear First World War military clothing and decorate the stage with tree branches. The collision of war and nature is a recurring motif, for instance, on Something Wicked, which contains the line: “It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage”. The chorus of Favours In The Beetroot Fields contains the repeated line “all the little seeds” and puns on the sowing of (multigerm) beetroot seed and the ejaculation of semen. It is a merging of Montgomery’s exhortation to his troops to satisfy their sexual appetite and Gerard’s 1597 description of a red beet, which “did bring forth his rough and uneven seed very plentifully”.

Beetroot is overlooked in much writing about aphrodisiacs, possibly because it is not exotic. Fashionable texts concentrate on romantic tropical fruits and unusual delicacies, for instance, while ignoring foods as proletarian and basic as beetroot. Despite this, however, blood-red beetroot has taken on an aura of rustic carnality. It stands for a mythologized agricultural lustiness. Beets particularly evoke a masculine sexuality - the juicy heft of globular roots. Health-giving and rude, the root of the beet will be enjoyed for years to come for its invigorating properties.

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© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2004

August 2004 SFN.