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What Are the Medical Uses of Betalains?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Research shows betalains exhibit significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that might protect human cells from oxidative stress. Betalains, phytonutrients found in beets, cacti, Swiss chard, and flowering amaranth plants, might also address premature aging and detoxify the body. These pigments range from yellow to dark purple and are used in the food industry as a dye.

Two dozen forms of betalains exist in the caryophyllales plant family, with two main forms studied for their health benefits. Betacyanins represent the pigment used in food dyes, which appear as red, blue, and purple pigments. The color degrades when exposed to light and is mainly used in frozen foods and products intended for consumption shortly after purchase.

Betaxanthins represent a yellow pigment also found in beets but at lower levels than the red varieties. Cacti grown in some areas, such as Sicily, contain ample amounts of these compounds. The Sonora Desert nopal cacti found in Mexico can endure extreme temperature variations, which allows them to produce all 24 betalains. These cacti have been used as food and medicine by native people for thousands of years.

Studies conducted with the bright, pink fruit of nopal cacti, also called prickly pear, show betalains might fight toxins in the human body that cause cell damage. People are exposed to toxins daily through the air, water, and some food. These free radicals have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Researchers believe nutrients in the cacti might protect against tumor formation, especially in the brain.

Betalains might also reduce inflammation caused by infection. Animal studies revealed these substances decreased the amount of inflammation in blood vessels, which may prevent clots from forming. They might also lower levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood that leads to the formation of plaque and blocked arteries.

Some health food stores sell a drink made from nopal cacti juice mixed with fruit nectar to improve flavor. The drink is sold as a supplement to detoxify the body and repair cell damage caused by free radicals and other toxins. Betalains might flush these toxins from the body, especially the liver.

Nopalea™, the trademarked name for this health drink, is also promoted as an anti-aging product. Manufacturers claim betalains in the juice repair damaged skin and might prevent premature aging. Nopalea™ is also marketed to build a strong immune system because it might neutralize free radicals. The health drink might also increase energy levels.

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Discussion Comments

By fify — On Dec 27, 2011

My brother is an athlete and he heard from his workout buddies that prickly pear is really good for recovering muscle. And it apparently also helps ease the digestive process, reduces fat storage and helps speed up metabolism as well. He's now made it a habit to have prickly pear after his workouts.

He says that he really feels a difference since he's started doing this. Something about not being as sore post-workouts as he used to be. I don't know but I do hope that it really helps. Because the fruit is not very cheap and is difficult to find. Thankfully we have an Asian grocery store nearby that imports it.

By bear78 — On Dec 26, 2011

@simrin-- It makes a lot of sense to have foods with betalains to treat cold and flu because foods with betalains are also rich in vitamins and antioxidants. So really, these foods can be used to fight almost all viral and bacterial infections because vitamins and antioxidants strengthen the immune system.

Take beets for example. They have vitamin A, B, C, folic acid, betalains, magnesium, potassium, antioxidants, fiber, calcium and iron. Can such a nutritious and healthy food be ineffective in fighting disease? No way!

I'm sure betalains have an important role in this process as well. But I don't like that people use supplements with just betalain in it. It's much better to have the whole fruit so that you can get the rest of the vitamins and minerals and the total possible benefit from it. I'd rather have beets or beet juice than betalain supplements any day.

By SteamLouis — On Dec 26, 2011

I wrote a paper for class about the natural medications used by natives in Mexico to treat various illnesses. I learned while doing this assignment that the nopal cactus was used for many things like the article mentioned.

It was used for wounds and ulcers, to treat cold and flu and even for serious diseases like diabetes and liver disease. Some natives still use it today for these ailments but it was used a lot more in the past. They probably didn't call these ailments diabetes or ulcers but recognized the symptoms that come with these diseases.

As far as I know, there haven't been any studies done to prove or disprove these treatments. But I do believe that betalains in food have healing properties.

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