What is betaine is a question asked by very few people; organic chemists and those interested in the breakdown of a toxic compound called homocysteine formed from protein metabolism.
For the chemical nature of this group of compounds I recommend looking at a biochemistry text book, or google.
Betaines are found in plant cells preventing excessive water loss. Their real importance to me is their ability to donate methyl groups.
Methylation, as it is known, is very important in human metabolism, and the common beet is an excellent source of betaine. It is increasingly being understood that it is a very important nutrient, and a deficiency is the cause of chronic disease in many different systems in the body.
Because a deficiency causes raised toxic homocysteine in the blood, it is the underlying cause of damage to capillaries, and hence the effect on heart, brain, liver and in fact all the organs of the body.
Betaine is a vital part in the use of an important essential amino acid called methionine which has to be consumed and is found in many food sources such as meat, dairy and fish. For vegans oats, nuts and seeds are the main sources of this protein.
This methionine cycle occurs mainly in the liver and kidneys; with inadequate methylation, levels of homocysteine rise and there is improper fat metabolism.
This leads to fatty liver and a host of blood vessel related diseases like stroke and heart disease.
Betaine is the source of methyl groups in many biochemical processes in the body.
What is betaine was originally found in sugar beets, hence its name. It is a group of compounds involved in a very important reaction in the human body called methylation.
Likewise it's vital for other mammals and has been used in animal feed for over half a century. For example in the poultry and pork industry it is used to reduce ugly and unhealthy body fat; it can do the same for us.
Betaine is mainly found in 100% wholewheat, but not in refined flour; in the germ and bran. Beets, spinach and seafood are the other good sources.
It's also a breakdown product of the vitamin choline, but the traditional Western diet contains 50% or less of this vital substance, so we are likely not be getting sufficient betaine from it.
Choline too is found mostly in 100% wholewheat, a rare food in the Western diet, eggs and green leafy vegetables.
Here you can find more information about choline food sources.
Choline is used in three ways:
Adequate choline is obviously vital for optimal health.
So, betaine, whether obtained directly in the diet, or from choline metabolism, has the vital function of methylating toxic homocysteine and converting it back to methionine, and on to another vital compound called SAM.
This also occurs via another cycle requiring folate and B12 as a secondary pathway.
But both pathways require adequate amounts of folate, B9, choline and B12. These vitamins are essential for detoxifying homocysteine, the cause of heart disease, stroke, Alzheimers and many other illnesses.
And, because these processes occur mainly in the liver, that is where fat is deposited in the event of a deficiency of these B vitamins.
Fatty liver is a serious disease, undermining the rest of blood vessel health by distorting blood lipids.
Obtaining insufficient betaine in the diet research shows results in poor liver function, increased size and poor control of blood sugar; and raised cholesterol.
Ironically recommendations now are for more eggs to provide choline which breaks down to betaine for improved liver function and a better lipid profile. And 100% wholewheat which is only rarely eaten by humans, and greens including spinach, plus beets.
Eggs Florentine, cooked on a bed of spinach and enjoyed on a slice of 100% wholewheat toast is perfect betaine food. Healthy flour is very difficult to get, so we grind our own.