Eat to the beet

By Sue Scott

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fast food, Nutrition, European food safety authority

Scientists are working on a healthy burger from beetroot
Scientists are working on a healthy burger from beetroot
Scientists are raising the bar of fast food to create the ultimately healthy, plant-based beetburger, says Sue Scott

As German beach volleyball stars Sara Goller and Laura Ludwig were cheered on to the Olympic pitch last month, bouncing with healthy phytochemicals from their sponsor DSM, the row over 'junk food' giants' involvement in the greatest sporting show on earth intensified.

The Children's Food Campaign's neatly timed Obesity Games Report called for global snacking and takeaway brands to be banned from future events on the grounds that giving bucket food behemoths such as McDonald's podium position sent completely the wrong message. Fast food promotion on such a grand scale, it argued, accelerated the already scarily huge problem of obesity especially among children leaving London 2012 with a legacy that read: 'Get fat, not fit'.

But what if visitors to the largest McDonald's in the world at Stratford Park were doing themselves a favour?

According to the scientists who are raising the nutrition bar 400 miles north at the Rowett Research Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen, the prospect of a 'fat-busting' Big Mac might not be far off.

They are striving to create the ultimate 'healthy' burger using a compound from the same group of highly complex phytochemicals that propelled superfit Goller and Ludwig around Horse Guards Parade. The athletes were given lutein and zeaxanthin extracts from fruit and vegetables to help them focus on victory both have been linked with improved vision. But Professor Garry Duthie's potentially winning formula is based on something a little more pedestrian whole beetroot.

Healthy beetburger

"We have been interested for some time in trying to reformulate foods to make them healthier and in getting people to eat more plant-based products,"​ he explains. "Adding them to convenience foods is one way of doing it."

His team's 'beetburger' is in fact a turkey takeaway, the white meat turned Aberdeen Angus red by beet's natural betalain pigments. But it's in the stomach that the vegetable's marathon effort really begins.

"Our physiological modelling using artificial stomachs and intestines found that when you consume a burger you get a lot of oxidised lipids forming in the stomach. Fats are transformed into potentially toxic compounds, which could be absorbed,"​ explains Duthie.

"Oxidation is a risk factor in a number of diseases, including cancer and heart disease. But if you combine the meat with beetroot powder it could stop absorption completely for a couple of hours, which is the length of time food stays in the stomach.

"There are other studies that indicate that beetroot may also lower blood pressure,"​ he added.

The research, which is expected to last a further six to nine months, is now in human trials and the results so far, from blood and urine samples taken to measure lipid absorption in volunteers in their 20s, have been promising.

"We've already had enquiries from manufacturers,"​ says Duthie. "The number one reason is healthy eating if you could badge a burger as being healthy that's good. But beetroot could also improve the burger's shelf-life, replacing synthetic powders, which also interests manufacturers.

"The government likes it because it's a way of getting vegetables into Scots, who aren't generally keen on them."

The prospect of using phytochemicals to engineer everyday foods, thereby reducing the potentially crippling long-term cost to the Exchequer of obesity, diabetes and dementia in particular, isn't lost on policy makers. But getting it past European gatekeepers is a different matter altogether.

phytochemical claims

Of the 222 approved claims under Article 13.1 of Europe's nutrition and health claims regulations (NHCR), just a handful so far relate to phytochemicals in olive oil, walnuts and wheat and barley beta-glucans. But a recent nod by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in favour of Swiss chocolate maker Barry Callebaut's claim that 10g of high flavanol dark chocolate a day could keep the doctor away has given manufacturers heart after the case for antioxidants was lost.

"The industry has been at a bit of a standstill, waiting to see what happens,"​ says Dr Roberta Re of Leatherhead Food Research.

"Antioxidant has always been badly branded it was just born with the wrong name. Phytochemicals are involved in all sorts of things from weight management to cognitive performance. But the more you get into it the more you realise the way these phytochemicals work is not based on them being antioxidant. But how do you prove it?"

The Callebaut claim credits cocoa flavanols with 'maintaining endothelium-dependent vasodilation, which contributes to normal blood flow' hardly likely to set the chocolate aisles alight. But as the first claim of its kind to measure up to EFSA's new science-based yard stick, it's a good start.

"The new regulations will cause food manufacturers to focus,"​ believes Dr Paul Kroon, who conducts cell-based research on polyphenols at the Institute of Food Research and has long advocated a more rigorous approach to labelling.

"We expect polyphenols work through lots of mechanisms. Cocoa is a good example. There's lots of evidence that the cocoa flavanol epicatechin changes nitric oxide availability. The changes are small but significant. The mechanism for that probably works in several ways but they inhabit an enzyme that destroys nitric oxide. In terms of putting in a health claim you need to know which compounds, how they work and demonstrate in humans the final outcome. And there aren't too many examples as clear as that."

Khaled El-Yafi who heads up juice maker The Berry Company has already had to strip his antioxidant claim off labels and isn't about to go to the expense of proving the benefits. But as boss of an established brand he's not unduly worried about it diluting the berry healthy message.

"It may make it more challenging for newer brands to enter the market, though,"​ he concedes.

Launching new superfoods, such as the up-and-coming jaboticaba and dark maqui berries, without an antioxidant crutch for marketing departments to rest on, may yet prove a challenge, even for existing suppliers like El-Yafi. This might explain why there has been such a sudden flurry of white coat interest in better understood compounds, including Duthie's beetroot.

Polyphenols

Dr Lisa Ryan of Oxford Brooke's University, who heads another team investigating the humble beet's many properties, is unpacking how its polyphenols behave in different food matrices. She has previously suggested that manipulating the foods people eat every day with active phytochemicals would be quicker than changing their attitudes in favour of a healthy diet. With billions flowing out the Treasury into treatment for the 50% of us expected to be clinically obese by 2020, it's not hard to imagine ministers agreeing with her.

Oxford Brooke's Functional Food Centre is now also looking at other novel food ingredients to assess whether the phytochemicals in these can increase fat oxidation and energy metabolism.

"Interestingly, more research groups are now working in this area. EFSA requires cause and effect to be established so we'll see how far the research needs to go before we see any EFSA claims,"​ a spokeswoman for the Centre says.

Meanwhile, if the International Olympic Committee heeds the call to run the fast food sponsors out of town, what are the odds on a McDonald's beetburger being on the menu in Rio?

Related topics: Health and nutritional ingredients

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