August 5, 2021

What’s the latest healthfood fad? Beets Me!

For the last several years, at most of the races I’ve gone to, they had a table for beets and beet juice. At the last Pikes Peak Ascent I did (2017) at the post race tent they had a SuperBeets table. I tried some, it tasted like beets. They also had a wild cheery-flavored sample, so I tried that. It was pretty good.

(Some beet powder manufacturers are adding flavors like wild cherry to entice you to consume more beets. I’ve looked at the ingredients and when they add flavoring they didn’t seem to add any sugar, so that is probably OK to take, too. )

Apparently, the main benefit of eating beets is they increases the Nitric Oxide in your blood. Chemically, it is one Nitrogen atom and Oxygen atom, i.e., NO. Not to be confused with Nitrous Oxide (N2O,) AKA, Laughing Gas.

Just what are the claims for beets?

I did a preliminary search and found the following benefits on WebMD:

Beet juice may boost stamina to help you exercise longer, improve blood flow, and help lower blood pressure. Beets are rich in natural chemicals called nitrates. Through a chain reaction, your body changes nitrates into nitric oxide, which helps with blood flow and blood pressure.

Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

There a number of studies showing the efficacy of beets and sports performance [1-4]. After all, living at 8600′, sometimes leaves me gasping for air. I’m curious about how a supplement will work and a bit wary of the placebo effect, so I thought I’d try a little experiment.

My Beet Science Experiment

Before jumping whole hog into taking beets, I wanted to know my baseline for Nitric Oxide. The SuperBeets folks send you some test strips when you subscribe to their product. Cool, I thought, why don’t I buy some of those test strips and do my own little experiment. I got a vial of 25 test strips from Amazon (HumanN Nitric Oxide Indicator Test Strips.) They’re \pretty pricey, so I used them judiciously.

Methods

I followed the directions on the test strip bottle and took my Nitric Oxide levels for four days (12/31 -1/2/2020) prior to taking any beets, giving me a baseline.

I purchased containers of SuperBeets by HumanN, Bountiful Beets, and some Maca Root (a beet from South America.) And, I used my wife, Christa’s, beets and sweets as a reference standard.

To keep everything as controlled as possible, I followed the directions on the test strip vial closely, i.e., making sure to take the supplement around mid-afternoon and measure my Nitric Oxide levels in the morning before eating or drinking anything (about 18 hours later.) Nitric oxide doesn’t stay in your blood very long. I did this informal study over a 2-week period this year (2020) from 12/31-1/13/2020. The following picture shows the results:

Results from Beet Experiment
These are the results of using the HumanN Nitric Oxide Saliva Test Strips. The “redder the better” or more Nitric Oxide.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this vaguely scientific study (remember, redder is better)?

  • The first four days were pretty much the same with no increase;
  • 1 serving of regular beets did have an effect (noticeably redder);
  • The days when no beets were consumed showed that the Nitric Oxide was pretty much gone in 24-hours;
  • Half-servings had little effect on Nitric Oxide;
  • It looks like a full serving of Bountiful Beets was slightly better than a full serving of SuperBeets;
  • Maca Root showed no increased Nitric Oxide.

It is worth to noting that a full serving of Bountiful Beets is 10 grams, while a full serving of SuperBeets is 5 grams. It is too bad that the indicator strips didn’t produce a digital value. I thought about borrowing a spectrometer to measure the overall reflectance values from the test strips to get real numbers, but I don’t have access to one. I may call a friend and see if I can borrow one.

After all was said and done, I actually didn’t notice any differences, except my urine turned pinkish. Does that mean they’re water soluble? Actually, most of the studies indicate that people in relatively good physical condition won’t see much difference in performance. The figure below is from [4]:

Here’s a roundup of studies looking at dietary nitrate’s effects on performance for elite and recreational athletes. Both short-term (acute) and longer-term (chronic) regimens were tested. Results that reached statistical significance are marked by an asterisk. Recreational athletes may gain more from nitrate supplementation than highly trained athletes; other potential factors are the dose and duration of nitrate supplementation as well as the duration, intensity and type of exercise.

So, if you’re pretty fit, you probably won’t notice much difference in taking beets. On the other hand, if you’re an elite athlete (or just think you are), or out-of-shape, a beet supplement may be just the edge you’re looking for.

The best reason to use a powdered form of beets is that preparing beets is a relatively long process. And, If you prepare beets by hand, wear gloves or you’ll end up with red-stained hands.

Warning

Remember nitrates are not good for infants. They can significantly reduce their oxygen uptake leading to what’s called the Blue Baby Syndrome. (Someone actually asked me this question in my doctoral defense.)

References

[1] Lansley, K. E.; Winyard, P. G.; Bailey, S J.; Vanhatalo, A.; Wilkerson, D. P.; Blackwell, J. R.; Gilchrist, M.; Benjamin, N.; Jones, A. M., (2011), Acute Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Improves Cycling Time Trial Performance, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol 43(6), p 1125-1131

[2] Peeling, P. , Cox, G.R., Bullock, N. and Burke, L.M., (2015), Beetroot Juice Improves On-Water 500 M Time-Trial Performance, and Laboratory-Based Paddling Economy in National and International-Level Kayak Athletes, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, vol 25(3), p 278-284

[3] Cuenca, E. , Jodra, P. , Pérez-López, A. , González-Rodríguez, L.G. , Fernandes da Silva, S. , Veiga-Herreros, P. and Domínguez, R., (2018), Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Performance and Fatigue in a 30-s All-Out Sprint Exercise: A Randomized, Double-Blind Cross-Over Study, Nutrients, vol. 10(9), 1222.

[4] Jones, A.M., Thompson, C., Wylie, L.J., and Vanhatalo, A. (2018), Dietary Nitrate and Physical Performance, Annual Review of Nutrition, vol. 38, p.l 303-328