A few weeks ago, I harvested the last of my beets from the garden. I’d been pulling up my yellow-fleshed Golden beets and candy-striped Chioggia beets all season, since I like how their colors stay intact and don’t bleed all over my plates. The final harvest was mostly Bull’s Blood beets, oozing their intensely colored, dark red juices when I roasted them in the oven. I sliced up four sweetly flavored roots for a warm roasted beet salad with walnuts, goat cheese, and creamy balsamic… nom nom nom.
Later that evening, after I finished my — ahem — “business” in the bathroom, I noticed that my urine and stool were tinged with a reddish-pink hue. Instinctively I panicked (okay, more like a silent freak-out over the toilet at this bloody/blood-like substance that came out of my body), but as I calmed down and tried to remember what I did or what I ate that day, my thoughts gravitated toward the large handful of red beets I’d consumed several hours before.
As it turns out, I had no cause for concern.
Beets contain betalain pigments that give the roots and stems their vibrant colors. Though other red-tinged plants such as amaranth, chard and rhubarb also contain the same class of pigment, the name “betalain” is derived from the Latin name for beetroot (Beta vulgaris) from which betalains were first extracted. One group of betalains, collectively called betacyanins, are responsible for the red and purple pigments found in common red beets. Another group, betaxanthins, are the predominant pigments found in golden/yellow and orange beets.
About 10 to 14 percent of people in the United States are affected by a condition called beeturia, in which the consumption of betacyanins give urine (and sometimes feces) a Kool-Aid spectrum of bright red, pink, or in rare instances, even a violet tint. (On the other hand, blood found in excrement is usually dark red, maroon, or black and tar-like.)
Though the causes of beeturia are seldom studied, it has been theorized that betacyanins are broken down in the body by acids. People prone to beeturia may have weaker stomach acids that allow more of the pigments to be absorbed in the intestine. Oxalic acids in the intestine preserve the reddish color of the pigments, which are then passed through the colon into the urine or feces… and you get the occasional pink in your poop. It’s normal to have abnormal passings up to 48 hours after eating red/purple beets.
While beeturia itself is not considered harmful, the condition commonly occurs in people with iron deficiencies, or non-anemics who experience fluctuations in iron absorption (due to dehydration or exercise, for instance). Predisposition to beeturia seems mostly affected by someone’s genetic makeup, stomach acidity, intestinal function, food preparation (roasting versus pickling beets each has an effect on betacyanins and how the body processes them), the type of beets ingested (one red variety may differ in pigment concentration from another red variety), or in my case, the amount of red beets consumed in a period. (Scarf down a whole bowl and surprise! It could look like a scene from Carrie in the porcelain bowl…) And just to keep you on your toes, beeturia may come and go with no rhyme or reason.
If you’re an otherwise healthy person, keep eating beets for their nutritional benefits… but perhaps stick to golden or orange beets if you want the post-meal peace of mind!