By Dr. Mercola
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.
‘Therapeutic Potentials’ Derived From Betalain
Beets have a number of highly beneficial compounds that scientists have found to prevent disease and promote health in a number of ways, including antioxidant and chemopreventive activity, but one of the most active of them is betalain, as the study explains:
- Bioavailability — This simply means that after being eaten, the compounds in beets are readily available for absorption into your gastrointestinal tract and circulatory system. Inorganic nitrite and betalain were noted as both highly bioavailable.13
- Endothelial function — As nitrate is changed to nitrite to produce nitric oxide, one of its most important functions is for endothelial cells (which form the linings of the blood vessels) and vascular health. Depletion of nitric oxide is the main cause of endothelial dysfunction.14
- Cognitive function — With age, blood flow through the brain is often reduced, but generating nitric oxide via beet consumption can “improve cerebrovascular blood flow and challenge detriments in cognitive function.”
- Inflammation — Inflammation is expected in cases of trauma or infection, but on a long-term basis, whatever is causing it should be both identified and removed to restore optimal function. “Chronic inflammation is often implicated in the onset and progression of several clinical disorders such as obesity, liver disease, cancer and heart disease.” However, beets are potent anti-inflammatory agents.
- Oxidative stress — A balance between reducing (antioxidants) and oxidizing (pro-oxidants) agents in oxidation are known as reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (RONS), which are generated in cellular metabolism, and are important for a number of cellular and biochemical processes, from gene expression to cell proliferation and apoptosis to muscular contraction, as well as cell protection.15
Additional Studies on the Effects of Betalain
A U.C. Davis study16 found that a concentration of betalain extracts from beets improved performance and exercise-related muscle damage. Thirteen 25-year-old male runners participated in two double-blind, crossover, randomized trials, supplemented with a betalain-rich concentrate and a control. For six days, the runners were supplemented with 50 milligrams (mg) of betalain, with a seven-day interval before the control.
After 2.5 hours of supplementation, the subjects engaged in treadmill running followed by a 5k running trial. Improvements included 3 percent lower heart rate, a 15 percent lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and a 14 percent lower blood lactate concentration compared to the control. The upshot was an improved 5k performance time.
One of the best things about all the benefits from eating foods containing betalain, including beets and cactus fruit, and to a lesser degree rainbow chard, amaranth and quinoa (which some scientists say are comparable to steak in regard to the protein they provide), especially for the dual purpose of gaining the many health advantages they provide, is its safety, which food production all over the world has shown over decades.
But here’s some information you might find interesting: Nutritionist Markus Rothkranz submitted a YouTube video featuring the nutritional highlights of prickly pear, as well as aloe vera, in light of their positive impact on your health:
“Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, [optimizing] cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea and benign prostatic hypertrophy, BPH; it is also used to fight viral infections. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine.”17
So, in answer to whether or not you should eat cactus fruit, the answer may be that you could get betalain from beets, as well, but this might be your opportunity to try dragon fruit, which you’ll find in many larger grocery stores, if not prickly pear.