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Have you ever considered swapping your morning glass of fresh orange for freshly squeezed beetroot? Thought not – but in light of a remarkable discovery, it may be worth downing the inky, purple-red stuff with your cornflakes. And, thanks to the launch this month of a scrumptious new juice, getting your daily dose won’t require a pinch of the nose or scrubbing stubborn, deep purple stains off your chopping board.
Earlier this year, scientists at Barts and the London School of Medicine found that beetroot juice can have as great an effect on blood pressure as conventional drugs.
Led by Professor Amrita Ahluwalia of the William Harvey Research Institute – the renowned pharmacology centre that discovered how aspirin can prevent heart attacks and strokes – the research team found that just three hours after drinking 500ml of the juice (the equivalent of eating five medium-sized beetroots) there was a significant decrease in volunteers’ blood pressure. The remarkable effects were still noticeable 24 hours later.
That such an inexpensive and bounteous vegetable may lower blood pressure makes beetroot worthy of its new-found status as the first “super-root”. However, the woody consistency, off-putting earthy aroma and overly sweet taste (delete as applicable), of its raw juice have long prevented more of us taking a glug – which is a shame, given that one in three adults in the UK now suffers from hypertension and could benefit from a regular 250ml dose, the equivalent of an average glass.
According to the Blood Pressure Association, a third of sufferers don’t even realise they have the condition, which results in an estimated 350 “preventable” strokes or heart attacks every day.
So how does beetroot work in the body? Like other superfoods, it has antioxidants in abundance, and is rich in iron, boron and folic acid. Betanene, which gives it its deep colour, is even more potent an antioxidant than polyphenols, the plant chemicals thought to be a key reason for people whose diets are rich in leafy vegetables having lower blood pressure.
But, says Professor Ben Benjamin, a consultant in Acute Medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth and member of the research team, it is beetroot’s capacity to absorb and store exceptionally high levels of nitrate that earns it the super-root title. Nitrates are nutrients found in soil which all plants need to build protein, and which the body harnesses in its battle against blood pressure.
“When nitrate is present in high concentration in saliva, bacteria on the tongue converts it into a more reactive chemical, nitrite,” Prof Benjamin explains. “When the nitrite is swallowed, it is easily converted into nitric oxide, a chemical which is continually produced by our blood vessels to make them relax and hence keep blood pressure low. So dramatically increasing the levels of nitrate with beetroot juice increases this effect.”
Along with its anti-hypertensive effects, the study also found that the high levels of nitrates in beetroot juice work like aspirin does to prevent blood clots, and help to protect the lining of the blood vessels.
So encouraged were researchers by the magnitude of the blood pressure effect that they approached a Suffolk-based natural drinks company to produce a bottled beetroot juice that would make it easy for people to introduce the root into their diet.
The resulting juice, HeartBeet, is certainly palatable, and definitely good for you. A “no bits” blend of crushed organic roots, with a touch of apple juice (10 per cent) to balance out the taste, it is now on sale in selected Holland & Barrett stores. Unlike other juices already available, seven per cent of its proceeds will go directly back into funding cardiovascular research.
It’s rare for the medical community to put its weight so boldly behind the power of nature over pharmacology. According to Prof Benjamin, it is testament to the importance of the findings, which he believes could lead the way to proving that high blood pressure can be treated by altering diet alone, and with fewer – if any – conventional drugs.
“Currently, treatment for high blood pressure involves a cocktail of aspirin, statins, beta blockers, and angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. Many people really don’t like taking all the tablets, especially since they often don’t feel unwell, and the treatment is essentially lifelong.”
One patient with high blood pressure, 60-year-old David Kelsall from Stoke-on-Trent, is already reaping the rewards of drinking a glass of beetroot juice a day. “I discovered that my blood pressure was higher than normal when my doctor was testing for something else,” he says. “It was 165/90mmHg – not life-threateningly serious, but none the less I was anxious to do something about it.”
Before committing to medication, he decided to give beetroot juice a try. “I drank three bottles of liquidised beetroot a week. Less than four weeks after the first test, I had my blood pressure taken again, and it had already levelled out to 150/90mmHg.” (A normal blood pressure reading would be in the range of 120/80mmHg.) “Now, a few months later, it is under control and normal. I am still drinking the juice, and I’m going to continue doing so. It may not help everyone, but it’s helped me.”
A growing body of research around the world suggests that the crucial nitrates in beetroot may also contribute to protecting us against other diseases, including infections and stomach ulcers – yet more reason to drink up. Having established a connection with blood pressure, scientists are now assessing just how much – or, rather, how little – of the juice is required for it to be effective.
If nothing else, beetroot’s health credentials give us all a reason to be smug: for once, the British country garden has come up with a foodstuff that trumps those in the Mediterranean “wonder diet”. And right now is the perfect time to grow your own. Beetroot seeds won’t germinate in temperatures below 7°C, or when there’s any inkling of ground frost, so early- to mid-summer is ideal to start planting. It can take as little as 10 weeks for a crop to mature, so you could be serving beetroot juice at your final summer barbecue of the year. We should all drink to that!
# HeartBeet organic beetroot juice (£1.49 for 25cl) is available from major Holland & Barrett stores (0870 606 6605, www.hollandandbarrett.com). For more details, call 01473 890111 or visit www.heartbeet.info