The Benefits Of Beetroot

28th August 2009

Parental instructions to consume more vegetables – ‘Eat up your greens, they’ll make you big and strong…’; ‘Don’t leave those carrots, they’ll help you see in the dark…’ – rarely centre around beetroot. Yet a recent study at the University of Exeter suggests that beetroot juice confers excellent health benefits, and particularly improves stamina.

Jill Glenn finds out more.

Apparently, it’s all down to the nitrates…

The volunteers in the Exeter University study, the results of which were revealed earlier this month, each drank 500ml of organic beetroot juice per day for six consecutive days before completing a series of physical tests, involving cycling on an exercise bike. As a control, on a separate occasion, they were given blackcurrant cordial for six days before completing the same tests. After the beetroot juice the group was able to cycle for an average of 11.25 minutes: 92 seconds longer than after the placebo, and roughly a 2% reduction in the time taken to cover a set distance. Effectively it’s an increase in endurance: use it to keep going for longer without getting tired (an extra ten minutes for every hour) or cover the same distance more quickly. It might not sound much to the lay (or should that be lazy?) person, but for a professional athlete, say, it could mean the difference between the booby prize and a place on the podium.

The results suggest that the nitrates in the juice are turning into nitric oxide in the body, reducing the ‘oxygen cost’ that results from exercise. Professor Andy Jones, part of the research team at the University of Exeter's School of Sport and Health Sciences, and an adviser to athlete Paula Radcliffe, observed: "We were amazed by the effects of beetroot juice on oxygen uptake because these effects cannot be achieved by any other known means, including training.”

The results may well be impressive, but the sample size was small – only eight people – so it’s probably too soon for muscle men and marathon runners to radically alter their training regimes. Even so, beetroot juice has enough additional plus points that there’s a good case for including it more regularly in any diet.

Beetroot is abundant in anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals, and especially rich in iron, boron and folic acid. The Romans, with some justification, thought it an aphrodisiac (boron is a mineral important in the production of human sex hormones) and there’s also a folk belief that a man and woman eating from the same beetroot will fall in love. Presumably with each other, although there’s no research to clarify this…

The Exeter study also confirmed the results of a survey carried out in 2007 that showed that beetroot juice can reduce high blood pressure. Volunteers at the William Harvey Research Institute at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, drank 500ml of beetroot juice or water over the course of 30 minutes, and had their blood pressure measured at regular intervals for the next 24 hours. A reduction in the pressure of the juice-drinkers was observed almost immediately, and was still evident 24 hours later. Again, the study was small (just 14 people) but the results are encouraging. The research team leader, Professor Amrita Ahluwalia, concluded: "Drinking beetroot juice, or consuming other nitrate-rich vegetables, might be a simple way to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system."

Nitrates are also found in green, leafy vegetables, including spinach and lettuce, but they are especially concentrated in juices, and very easy to consume that way. You can juice your own beetroot, or buy from a range of ready-prepared offerings, available in health food stores or online. Some are mixed with other juices, often apple, to offset a certain earthiness, and most taste very palatable – especially served chilled.

For parents, there’s a definite advantage to all this. Need to get some superfoods into your children’s diet without inititating World War Three? Just puree some beetroot and hide it in a fruit crumble, or purchase one of those prepared beetroot juices and add it – discreetly – to blackcurrant drinks or raspberry smoothies.

You can’t do that with cabbage…

Find Your Local