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.