Beet route to food’s future

Dr Nikos Mavroudis

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By Mike Cowley

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, by 2050 the world’s population will be 34 per cent greater than it is today. This will place increasing pressure on the planet’s natural resources and further the need to find innovative ways to overcome these challenges.

Northumbria University has responded to this by investing significant resources in multidisciplinary research into new but sustainable utilisation of natural products, a field known as the bioeconomy.

Working with external organisations including the NHS, multinationals and small and medium-sized enterprises or SMEs, the university’s faculty of health and life sciences is delivering diverse research projects which range from helping survivors of head and neck cancer to overcome eating difficulties, to assisting Parkinson’s patients to walk.

Dr Nikos Mavroudis, a food science researcher in the faculty’s applied science department, is on a mission to build sustainable and financially viable technologies for food production and the utilisation of byproducts. These technologies can generate healthy ingredients cost-effectively and make healthy food available to everyone – not just to those who can afford it.

Although the research by Dr Mavroudis, based on beetroot, might at first seem mundane, this is far from being the case. The Romans first noticed the benefit of beets as an aphrodisiac, and the vegetable has latterly become known as the “natural Viagra” because it helps to release nitric oxide into the body, widening blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the sex organs, just like its modern patented counterpart.

Ever since Roman times, there have been claims suggesting that beetroot can be good for us – for instance one study showed that consumption of around 500 millilitres of beetroot juice per day has a positive effect on blood pressure and can thus contribute to a healthy heart.

Beetroot also contains betacyanin, which provides the red colour. Betacyanin is an antioxidant, and antioxidants are known to protect healthy cells from damage by free radicals. Beets and their juices are also useful for pregnant women, as they are a rich source of folic acid, a necessary nutrient for the development of the baby’s spinal cord during the first three months of pregnancy.

Add in that beetroot is said to decrease the level of bad cholesterol, improve sports performance, relieve fatigue, boost brain function, stimulate the immune system, combat constipation and even cheer us up, and it appears to be a very valuable and healthy food, one which should be consumed frequently.

Now for the bad news. According to work conducted by Dr Mavroudis and his team, while beetroot and its juice confers a number of short-term health pluses, these require frequent, possibly daily consumption for enduring benefit – and beetroot also contains things that, with increased intake over the longer term, could make us seriously ill and even kill us.

Beetroot is naturally rich in oxalate – a known antinutrient – that can cause adverse health effects ranging from mild stomach irritation up to kidney stones, gout or kidney failure following longterm ingestion. Beetroot juice is also naturally rich in sugars that significantly increase the calorific content, something viewed negatively by nutritionists and consumers in developed markets given that excess sugar in foods is seen as a major cause of obesity, the current plague of Western society.

This is why Dr Mavroudis and his team are aiming to develop a process for generating a sugar- and oxalate-free beetroot juice (SOFBJ) without any compromise on its health benefits. The production and characterisation of SOFBJ from beetroot – and from byproducts that would otherwise be disposed of as waste – will open the way for improved utilisation of beetroot in the food industry.

One of the goals of the research is to generate SOFBJ that contains functional foods with a variety of benefits for consumers, such as antihypertensive benefit, increased mental acuity and sport performance. What this means in layman’s terms is that when the Northumbria University team comes up with a process to remove the bad bits of beet and offer the good bits to food manufacturers, it could increase the availability of cheap and healthy foodstuffs for a wider range of consumers – including those on lower incomes.

Affordability is important, given the division in society between the betteroff who are eating healthily and those on lower incomes who are not. In accordance with Government and EU initiatives, and joining forces with other industrial partners and academic institutions, the Northumbria University bioeconomy team aims to provide affordable and healthy ingredients that can be added to a wide range of processed foods without any taste compromise.

Head and neck cancer (HNC) patients often find themselves faced with eating difficulties following treatment – difficulties ranging from loss of taste buds through to severe problems in swallowing.

The Northumbria University food science team found that a detailed assessment of the ability of HNC survivors to sense basic tastes such as sweet, sour, salty or umami provides a way of establishing the level of damage to taste buds.

Overcoming this damage is the next challenge. Experience of food is governed by a combination of taste, via taste buds, and smell which occurs in specific areas of the nose. Due to this it has been possible to derive a compensatory approach to loss of taste, through use of aromas.

In cases of complete loss of taste, such as when HNC survivors are unable to detect umami (for instance the yummy taste of a good Sunday roast) in their tongues, the addition of suitable aroma compounds detected via relevant areas in the nose was found to be successful. These aromas are commercially available and can be used as “condiments” by HNC survivors.

For partial taste impairment, increasing the concentration of compounds that generate specific tastes such as sourness could compensate for the inability to detect taste. Providing HNC survivors with this advice can lead to solutions as simple as adding sourness in the form of lemon juice.