Beets, cactus fruit — aka prickly pear — and another cacti called red pitahaya, or dragon fruit, are foods that have attracted a lot of attention in recent years due to their high concentration of a powerful compound called betalain. The term betalain is derived from the Latin name for beet, Beta vulgaris, which is where it was first found. Both beets and dark red or purple cactus fruit contain high amounts of betalain, used for years as a natural, commercial food dye.
In more recent studies, betalain has been recognized for its powerful natural antioxidants, which many studies have shown may have anticancer and other disease-fighting potential. When certain plant-based foods gain a reputation for promoting health and fighting disease, they’re referred to by scientists as “functional foods,” and both beets and cactus fruit certainly are, as well as purple chard, amaranth and quinoa.1 According to a blog called Wellness Guide:
“Betalains assist the body in a total transformation by neutralizing toxins and supporting the cell’s natural detoxification process. By preventing toxins from accumulating and preserving the integrity of the cell, chronic inflammation can be avoided. Betalains also reduce the enzymes responsible for causing inflammation. This protein/antioxidant complex greatly assists in improved health and a longer life.
There are twenty four (24) separate components, and each one supplies a specific structure and function to every cell. They provide a reward system for cells distressed by toxins and internal deficiencies. This helps to counteract premature aging by strengthening the cell wall. As a result the cell is rehydrated.”2
Additionally, betalains help balance minerals with a 2-to-1 ratio of minerals, such as potassium inside the cell, sodium outside the cell, magnesium inside the cell and calcium outside the cell in order to maintain the integrity of cells. In essence, betalain reduces toxins surrounding your cells and allows essential nutrients to make needed improvements, which reduces inflammation implicated in numerous diseases.
How Does Betalain Work?
The little-known but highly bioactive group of red, yellow and purple pigments, which is what betalains are, has been shown to exert antihypertensive, anticancer, chemopreventive and hypoglycemic activities, according to a study3 produced principally by researchers from Northumbria University in the U.K.
“Betalain shows therapeutic potential that could be utilized in the treatment of inflammation-associated diseases,” one study4 reported. Another concluded that the “vascular-protective effects offered by beetroot and its constituents have been clearly demonstrated by several in vitro and in vivo human and animal studies.”5 Further:
“Recent studies have provided compelling evidence that beetroot ingestion offers beneficial physiological effects that may translate to improved clinical outcomes for several pathologies, such as: hypertension, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes and dementia (and) significantly reduce(s) systolic and diastolic blood pressure.”6
Besides the betalain, other powerful phytochemical compounds in beets include ascorbic acid, carotenoids, phenolic acids and flavonoids, as well as natural pigments such as polyphenolic anthocyanins such as resveratrol,7 carotenoids and chlorophylls,8 which all play major parts in improving health. Researchers in Spain9 (as well as a separate study in Italy10) found that betalains in both beets and cactus fruit:
Provide soluble fiber, which helps optimize cholesterol
Provide carotenoids and flavonoids, which benefit heart health
Protect your cells from toxins, especially in the brain
Protect your liver from toxins
Contain both potassium and magnesium
In fact, 24 different kinds of betalains have been discovered in beets and cactus fruits, while other betalain-containing plants provide only six to 12 kinds. Additionally:
“A higher concentration of these substances can be found in plants that live in hot climates. The harsher the climate the more the plant produces to protect itself from the heat.”11
Betalains Convert Nitrates to Nitrites — The Good Kind
The sequence through which naturally occurring nitrates (found in other vegetables besides beets) are converted to nitrites when they’re eaten via bacteria in your mouth is also explained in the study. These nitrates are not to be confused with those contained in processed meats such as bacon, pork, pepperoni and hotdogs, which are nitrates converted to potentially dangerous nitrosamines, especially when heated (which Scientific American reported as a Group 1 carcinogen, with the same risk as smoking and asbestos12).
Because vegetables also contain high amounts of antioxidants, these types of nitrites are not detrimental because your body transforms the nitrates into a soluble gas known as nitric oxide (NO), which is continually produced from the amino acid L-arginine inside your cells.