Wall Street Journal
Auburn's Secret Sauce: Beet Juice

September 17, 2014
by Ben Cohen

The Nitrate-Rich Beverage Is Fueling the Fifth-Ranked Tigers; 'The Worst Thing in the Entire World'

Auburn players after the Tigers' victory over Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship game last season. AP

Auburn players after the Tigers' victory over Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship game last season. AP

Behind every championship team is a strategy that may sound strange to everyone else. Auburn's happens to taste that way, too.

Beyond the usual explanations for Auburn's remarkable rise from 3-9 in 2012 to winning the Southeastern Conference last year is a secret that hadn't been revealed until now. Over the last two seasons, the Tigers have been experimenting with an elixir-like potion. 

"We were doing beet juice," says Auburn dietitian Scott Sehnert. 

Before each game, between team warm-ups and the opening kickoff, Auburn's staff distributes small pouches of beetroot concentrate. The players swirl the beetroot crystals around their water bottles and then slug the deep-purple concoction—which they don't exactly savor. 

"The worst thing in the entire world," said Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. "It is nasty."

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But they aren't drinking it for the taste. In recent years, sports scientists have seized on the discovery that beetroot juice is rich with nitrate. That has led to multiple studies revealing possible performance benefits that range from increased muscle efficiency to decreases in fatigue levels.

Beetroot juice, in other words, could energize players with that extra oomph as the game goes on. Last season, for example, Auburn won four games despite trailing in the fourth quarter, including their win-for-the-ages over rival Alabama. Auburn tied that game in the final minute and then won it on a game-ending 100-yard missed field-goal return.

Now, in their second season with the stuff, more than half of Auburn's players bite the beetroot-juice bullet. But it didn't go down so easily at first. Uzomah was baffled when Sehnert told Auburn's players about the wonders of gulping beetroot juice. His initial reaction: "Dude, seriously?" 

This idea isn't exclusive to Auburn, which is 2-0 and ranked No. 5 heading into Thursday's game at No. 20 Kansas State. The list of beetroot juicers in college football includes the University of Texas, where Longhorns dietitian Amy Culp introduced beetroot juice to the football team's nutritional nuts, who used their locker-room influence to sell their teammates. Culp aims for Texas' athletes to drink beetroot juice at least three times a week, she said. 

In the NFL, the Houston Texans were early adopters. Before it was widely available as a concentrate, they sent interns to grocery stores to buy all the beetroot juice they could find. Roberta Anding, the team's dietitian at the time, protected Houston's habit as if it were the team playbook.

"I'd be at sports nutrition and medicine meetings," she said, "and I wouldn't tell anybody we were doing this." 

How beetroot juice joined Gatorade and water as the drinks du jour in college football is almost as peculiar as the taste itself. 

In 2007, Lawrence Mallinson, the managing director of James White Drinks, which produces Beet It, learned that beetroot juice sales were about to spike as a result of physiologists finding that its heavy dose of nitrate lowers oxygen demands during exercise.

Sports scientists and endurance athletes were suddenly interested in beetroot juice. But they caught the industry by surprise. The nitrate in beetroot juice varies by the glass, meaning some athletes were getting more than others, while laboratories would see skewed results in their beetroot-related experiments.

The other problem was that drinking beetroot juice by the half-liter wasn't palatable as a pregame snack. "Bloody hell, that's an awful lot of juice," one rugby team told Mallinson, he said. 

What they needed to do was come up with a way to reduce the amount of juice while controlling the amount of beetroot—which is how they came up with concentrated beetroot shots. 

Some beetroot-juice makers are catering to athletes who can't stand the flavor. Neogenis Sport, an Austin-based company that stocks more than 30 pro and college teams with BeetElite, created a sweeter, black-cherry alternative, said sports nutritionist Tricia Griffin. James White Drinks in England rolled out an oatmeal bar stuffed with beetroot concentrate to mask the bitterness of its Beet It product. 

But there are the extreme beetroot-juice converts who swallow it through gritted teeth before their workouts. "The serious sports world is used to taking dollops of absolutely horrible stuff," said Mallinson. 

The growing body of beetroot-related sports research is still its infancy. So far, it has focused on continuous endurance activities, like long-distance running and cycling. The overall sports value of nitrate supplementation requires more research, said the scientists who specialize in the matter. 

But one paper last year in the European Journal of Applied Physiology examined beetroot juice in an unexplored context: team sports. The researchers simulated the intense but intermittent activity patterns in football and soccer—and found evidence of performance boosts similar to those in earlier studies. "It's pretty fascinating," said Andrew Jones, a University of Exeter physiologist who co-wrote the study, "that something as humble as the beetroot can exert such profound effects."

And it seems to have caught on in Auburn's locker room, of all places. Sehnert, the team's dietitian, estimates that 70% of players finished their beetroot juice before the Tigers' last game. "It's an acquired taste," Uzomahsaid.