Science Questions

Why isnít beetroot dye broken down by digestion?

Sun, 29th Nov 2009

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Question

Byran Spease, Pennsylvania asked:

Why isnít beetroot dye broken down by digestion?

Answer

Chris -   Well, in some people it is, but in some people it isnít.  The chemical thatís in beetroot that makes them red and makes some people wee red and also pass red faeces, which is what can happen if you eat a lot of beetroot, is a chemical called betacyanin.  Itís actually an anti-oxidant that the beetroot makes and it can be used a colour change indicator too, but it doesnít necessarily breakdown in the intestines of all people.

The things that seem to make it breakdown more are acidity, so if you have very strong stomach acid then it breaks down more.  If you have weaker stomach acid, then more can get through into the small intestine, and there, pancreatic juice is alkaline.  So that can encourage it to pass through into the colon which is actually where itís absorbed.

People have done experiments on patients who have had things called ileostomies, which is where you take the ileum, the terminal bowel, and you bring it to the surface of the skin.  And you take the contents away into a bag, for example.  If you feed these patients with the betacyanins in beetroot they donít ever get beeturia, in other words, the red dye getting into their urine.  That shows that the absorption must take place in the large intestine.

The other things that seem to affect the absorption is a chemical called oxalate, oxalic acid, which you get from rhubarb and rhubarb leaves. That actually gets broken down by bacteria in the small intestine and in the large bowel.  So itís possible that thereís a combined effect whereby some people have a certain genetic makeup that makes them break this stuff down more than others because they have more acidity.  Itís also possible that they have certain bacteria living in the intestine that breaks this stuff down more than others, and so that affects whether or not you see it appearing in the bloodstream.

But in people who do get beeturia, what seems to happen is that the pigment comes through the wall of the bowel, doesnít get broken down, goes around in the bloodstream, and then it gets filtered out by the kidneys and goes into urine, and makes urine go red.  But whatís really interesting is that on its way to the kidneys, of course, it has to go through the blood.  And I was rooting around on the Internet, and I found this wonderful paper.  It was published in the Christmas BMJ 2005 by two doctors, Julia Handysides and Stuart Handysides, who work in Essex...  What they did was to - well, theyíve written this paper.  Iíll read you this because itís hilarious.

ďOne Sunday evening in 2004, our 11-year old son went to bed after various delaying tactics, arguments about friends staying up later, forgetting to brush his teeth, forgetting to come down for a drink of water, and so on.  But shortly afterwards, the dining door room opens, and in he comes, cupping a bleeding nose in one hand and gripping the bridge of his nose with the other.  We led him to the kitchen sink and helped him to clean up and stem the bleeding, but oddly, the blood on his hands would not wash off.  And it also looked brighter than usual.  The poor child was interrogated.  Is this some kind of ruse or lark to stay up later?

The bleeding stopped, his hands, although stained pink, were now clean and dry. Upstairs, we found crimson stains on the bathroom carpet which proved impossible to shift and remain there over one year later.  Our gardenís harvest of beetroot was very good in 2004, and we had eaten some the day before the nosebleed.  It dawned on us that on its way to staining urine, the pigment in beetroot might also stain blood as well.Ē

So that means potentially, all of your internal organs are getting stained bright red by beetroot, and if you bleed, the stuff can come out and stain your skin.  I mean, thatís just amazing!

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Byran Spease asked the Naked Scientists: Love your show! I have a question for you. What is different about colour in a red beetroot that allows it to pass through your digestive system without being absorbed? Could it, or is it used for anything beneficial or practical? Thanks, Byran from Pennsylvania USA What do you think? Byran Spease , Sun, 29th Nov 2009

This was the answer given on the podcast to "Why isn't beetroot pigment broken down by digestion?":

"Well, in some people it is, but in some people it isnít.  The chemical thatís in beetroot that makes them red and makes some people wee red and also pass red faeces, which is what can happen if you eat a lot of beetroot, is a chemical called betacyanin.  Itís actually an anti-oxidant that the beetroot makes and it can be used a colour change indicator too, but it doesnít necessarily breakdown in the intestines of all people.

The things that seem to make it breakdown more are acidity, so if you have very strong stomach acid then it breaks down more.  If you have weaker stomach acid, then more can get through into the small intestine, and there, pancreatic juice is alkaline.  So that can encourage it to pass through into the colon which is actually where itís absorbed.

People have done experiments on patients who have had things called ileostomies, which is where you take the ileum, the terminal bowel, and you bring it to the surface of the skin.  And you take the contents away into a bag, for example.  If you feed these patients with the betacyanins in beetroot they donít ever get beeturia, in other words, the red dye getting into their urine.  That shows that the absorption must take place in the large intestine.

The other things that seem to affect the absorption is a chemical called oxalate, oxalic acid, which you get from rhubarb and rhubarb leaves. That actually gets broken down by bacteria in the small intestine and in the large bowel.  So itís possible that thereís a combined effect whereby some people have a certain genetic makeup that makes them break this stuff down more than others because they have more acidity.  Itís also possible that they have certain bacteria living in the intestine that breaks this stuff down more than others, and so that affects whether or not you see it appearing in the bloodstream.

But in people who do get beeturia, what seems to happen is that the pigment comes through the wall of the bowel, doesnít get broken down, goes around in the bloodstream, and then it gets filtered out by the kidneys and goes into urine, and makes urine go red.  But whatís really interesting is that on its way to the kidneys, of course, it has to go through the blood.  And I was rooting around on the Internet, and I found this wonderful paper.  It was published in the Christmas BMJ 2005 by two doctors, Julia Handysides and Stuart Handysides, who work in Essex...  What they did was to - well, theyíve written this paper.  Iíll read you this because itís hilarious.

ďOne Sunday evening in 2004, our 11-year old son went to bed after various delaying tactics, arguments about friends staying up later, forgetting to brush his teeth, forgetting to come down for a drink of water, and so on.  But shortly afterwards, the dining door room opens, and in he comes, cupping a bleeding nose in one hand and gripping the bridge of his nose with the other.  We led him to the kitchen sink and helped him to clean up and stem the bleeding, but oddly, the blood on his hands would not wash off.  And it also looked brighter than usual.  The poor child was interrogated.  Is this some kind of ruse or lark to stay up later?

The bleeding stopped, his hands, although stained pink, were now clean and dry. Upstairs, we found crimson stains on the bathroom carpet which proved impossible to shift and remain there over one year later.  Our gardenís harvest of beetroot was very good in 2004, and we had eaten some the day before the nosebleed.  It dawned on us that on its way to staining urine, the pigment in beetroot might also stain blood as well.Ē

So that means potentially, all of your internal organs are getting stained bright red by beetroot, and if you bleed, the stuff can come out and stain your skin.  I mean, thatís just amazing!

November 2009"

chris, Sun, 6th Dec 2009

Hi Naked Scientists, How come the urine and faeces are not dyed when i first started to drink beetroot+burdock juice,but few weeks of daily consuming the juice my poop//urine was red? Sally, Wed, 5th Mar 2014

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