Stillwater News Press


April 19, 2014

Seed to Table 04-20-14

Sometimes words can be confusing

Betanin (ba'tah-nin) and betaine (ba'tah-in) are two terms I encountered while working on a column about beets. However, a conversation I recently overheard, has prompted me to set that topic aside, and use this bit of information to lead into a consideration of “problematic word confusions.”

Betanin is the name of one of many pigments present in the beet, and is responsible for its red color. It is an interesting compound, and the subject of a whole industry.  Dried and beaten into a powder, or extracted chemically, it is marketed as a colorant for foods such as tomato paste and pizza toppings.

Betaine, on the other hand, is a common name for trimethylglycine, a form of the amino acid glycine, which occurs naturally in all cells – plant and animal. It is important in cellular metabolism, both to protect cells against changes in water/salt balance, and as a methyl donor in several metabolic pathways. It is actually prescribed as a treatment for several clinical conditions – including homocystinuria. It is no wonder then that a large food-supplement industry has grown up around it.

So those minor spelling differences in the terms betanin and betaine identify significantly different substances, which could be easily confused.

Back to that overheard conversation.

Recently, standing in a grocery store aisle, I overhear this exchange between a couple.  “What is MSG?” asked the man, reading from a package label. “Oh, that’s that genetic stuff” replied the woman very matter-of-factly. MSG and GMO: how easy it could be to confuse those two acronyms, yet they represent things even more different from each other than betanin from betaine.  

Setting aside for the moment the debate fueled by the fact that some people have a real sensitivity to this substance, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a widely occurring natural form of the nonessential amino acid glutamic acid. The term nonessential does not mean that we don’t need it, it means that we don’t need to consume it in food because our body makes it.  In fact, it is critically essential to our body’s proper functioning – serving both as a structural component of proteins and as a neurotransmitter in the brain

On the other hand, the term GMO (genetically modified organism) refers to products made using crops (plant or animal) which have been genetically manipulated using one of a select few techniques for removing genes from one species and inserting them into another species. For example, inserting a gene isolated from bacteria, which confers resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup®), into corn – thereby conferring resistance to the herbicide to the corn plant.

My objective with this issue was not to define these four terms, nor to enter any debate concerning them, but to simply heighten awareness to the importance of reading labels (and other food related materials) very carefully, and then making sure we really understand what we’ve read. It is, perhaps, the most healthful things we can do in terms of nutrition.

Richard A. "Dick" Ortez earned a doctorate degree from Creighton University in microbiology. During the past 40 years, he has taught elements of food science at the university and medical school levels, operated a cafe, and run a truck farm and food processing business. He writes the Seed to Table column at his farm near Glencoe and welcomes questions, comments and suggestions sent to

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