Hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body, is found in plants, too, including sugar beets
Beet hemoglobin is nearly identical to human hemoglobin and might one day become a blood substitute
About 2.5 acres of sugar beets could produce 1-2 tons of hemoglobin, which could potentially save thousands of lives
Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. While you might assume this is a uniquely human protein, it’s actually found in plants, too, including sugar beets.
Researchers from Lund University in Sweden, who note that hemoglobin from blood donations falls far short of demands, hope that this plant hemoglobin, known as leghemoglobin, may one day become a blood substitute capable of saving lives.
2.5 Acres of Beets Could Save Thousands of Lives?
Sugar beets (unfortunately often genetically modified) are a common raw material used for the production of sugar, but extracting sugar from the beets is far easier than extracting hemoglobin.
According to researchers, the challenge is extracting enough from each mature beet, although they estimate that one hectare of beets (about 2.5 acres) could produce 1-2 tons of hemoglobin, which they say “could save thousands of lives.”1
While complete blood is ultimately needed for blood transfusions, hemoglobin can be given in the first five hours following an accident to help oxygen circulate throughout the body.2
The beet hemoglobin is, surprisingly, nearly identical to human hemoglobin, except for a small “surface detail” that Nélida Leiva, a doctoral student of applied biochemistry at Lund University, said extends the lifespan of the beet hemoglobin.
There are multiple types of hemoglobin in your body, including that in your blood as well as in your brain and testicles in men. The beet hemoglobin shares the most similarities with the brain hemoglobin. If you’re wondering why hemoglobin, which transports oxygen, is needed in plants, Leiva explained:3
“We have found that the hemoglobin in the plant binds nitric oxide. It is probably needed to keep certain processes in check, for example so that the nitric oxide doesn’t become toxic, and to ward off bacteria.”
More research is planned to determine if the sugar beet hemoglobin could one day be used as a blood substitute, but at least one expert is skeptical. Raúl Arredondo-Peter, who has studied the evolution of plant hemoglobins, believes the idea “is conceivable but far off because they do not carry and release oxygen at the same rates as human hemoglobins.”4
6 Reasons to Add Beets to Your Diet
Beet roots have the highest sugar content of all vegetables, but they also contain a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Adding beets to your diet a few times a week is a good way to benefit from their nutrition without overdosing on their high amounts of sugar.
Keep in mind that the red beets most people add to salads and side dishes in the US are known as table beets, and they are not the same variety as the sugar beets mentioned above (which are actually white). What are beets good for?
1. Lower Your Blood Pressure
The benefit likely comes from the naturally occurring nitrates in beets, which are converted into nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide, in turn, helps to relax and dilate your blood vessels, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
2. Boost Your Stamina
Those who drank beet juice prior to exercise were able to exercise for up to 16 percent longer.6 The benefit is thought to also be related to nitrates turning into nitric oxide, which may reduce the oxygen cost of low-intensity exercise as well as enhance tolerance to high-intensity exercise.
3. Fight Inflammation
Beets are a unique source of betaine, a nutrient that helps protects cells, proteins, and enzymes from environmental stress. It’s also known to help fight inflammation, protect internal organs, improve vascular risk factors, enhance performance and likely help prevent numerous chronic diseases.7 As reported by the World’s Healthiest Foods:8
“[Betaine’s]… presence in our diet has been associated with lower levels of several inflammatory markers, including C reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha.
As a group, the anti-inflammatory molecules found in beets may eventually be shown to provide cardiovascular benefits in large-scale human studies, as well as anti-inflammatory benefits for other body systems.”
4. Anti-Cancer Properties
The powerful phytonutrients that give beets their deep crimson color may help to ward off cancer. Research has shown that beetroot extract reduced multi-organ tumor formations in various animal models when administered in drinking water, for instance, while beetroot extract is also being studied for use in treating human pancreatic, breast, and prostate cancers.9
5. Rich in Valuable Nutrients and Fiber
Beets are high in immune-boosting vitamin C, fiber, and essential minerals like potassium (essential for healthy nerve and muscle function) and manganese (which is good for your bones, liver, kidneys, and pancreas). Beets also contain the B vitamin folate, which helps reduce the risk of birth defects.
6. Detoxification Support
The betalin pigments in beets support your body’s Phase 2 detoxification process, which is when broken down toxins are bound to other molecules so they can be excreted from your body. Traditionally, beets are valued for their support in detoxification and helping to purify your blood and your liver.
Most US Sugar Beets Are Genetically Modified
It is important to know that about 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the US are genetically modified (GM). A number of organizations challenged the USDA approval of Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2008, arguing that the beets would contaminate related organic and non-GM crops such as table beets and chard.
Further, they said that the pesticide-resistant beets would increase pesticide impacts on the environment and worsen the current epidemic of pesticide-resistant superweeds. Roundup Ready crops are designed to withstand otherwise lethal topical doses of glyphosate—a broad spectrum herbicide, and the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup as well as hundreds of other products.
With genetic engineering, the crop survives the toxic herbicide while weeds are theoretically eliminated from the field. I say “theoretically” because the overuse of the herbicide has led to the rapid development of glyphosate-resistant superweeds. It’s estimated that more than 130 types of weeds spanning 40 U.S. states are now herbicide-resistant, and the superweeds are showing no signs of stopping.
Roundup Ready crops have also been linked to serious health problems—particularly relating to fertility and birth defects—as has glyphosate itself. A lawsuit was filed against the USDA in 2009 for failure to complete an Environmental Impact Study. A federal judge agreed, temporarily suspending all planting of GM sugar beets. The suspension was later overridden by the USDA, ostensibly to prevent a sugar shortage – and the rest is history.
While the table beets most people eat are not currently genetically modified, they’re often grown in close proximity to sugar beets, and cross-pollination is known to occur. So when choosing beets to eat, opt for organic varieties whenever possible. It’s unclear whether the sugar beets being considered to make hemoglobin for humans are also the genetically modified variety… but let’s hope not, since the consequences of such an experiment are completely unknown.
Beet Greens Are Good for You, Too
No discussion of beets would be complete without beet greens, which are among the healthiest part of the plant. Besides containing important nutrients like protein, phosphorus, zinc, fiber, vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, copper, and manganese, beet greens also supply significant amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Beet greens actually have even more iron than spinach (another leafy green in the same botanical family) as well as a higher nutritional value overall than the beetroot itself. For more details, read “What Are Beet Greens Good For?” You may be surprised to learn, for instance, that research shows beet greens may:
- Help ward off osteoporosis by boosting bone strength
- Fight Alzheimer’s disease
- Strengthen your immune system by stimulating the production of antibodies and white blood cells
If you’ve never tried beet greens before, don’t let them intimidate you. They can be added raw to vegetable juice or sautéed lightly right along with other greens like spinach and Swiss chard – as can the beet root.
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