Beans, grains, wholemeal flour, nuts and seeds are powerhouses of nutrition. They are a wonderful source of protein and micronutrients, but if you rely on them a lot, you should be aware that they can potentially have a sting in their tail.
These foods all contain phytate, also known as phytic acid. Some people refer to it as an “anti-nutrient”, but there’s more to it than that. This phytate molecule is very helpful to the plant as it prevents premature germination, and stores nutrients for the growth of the plant. However, when humans eat these chemicals, the level of phytate limits the body’s ability to digest important minerals and proteins. They bind to nutrients in the food such as zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, chromium and manganese, reducing our capacity to absorb them in the small intestine. On the plus side, it has antioxidant properties.
Phytate attaches to the nutrients in the food you consume at the time but have little effect on the food that you eat at other times of the day. For example, eating phytate-rich nuts could restrict the amount of iron, zinc and calcium you absorb from them, but probably not affect a meal later on in the day. If you eat a balanced and varied diet and phytate-rich foods aren’t too high a proportion of your overall intake, you don’t have to worry, and in fact there are health benefits to phytates in a normal diet. However, if you eat high-phytate foods with most of your meals, you may be encouraging nutrient deficiencies over time. You should be especially watchful if you have an existing iron deficiency or if you are vegetarian, vegan or mainly plant-based.
But please don’t let this put you off eating these nutritious foods. There is a great trick to reduce and neutralise the phytates. It just involves thinking ahead and a simple soak with an acidic medium in a nice warm corner of your kitchen.
Some people find that eating beans can make them quite gassy and bloated, and soaking beans can also help quite a bit with this. The other thing that can help to counteract the excess fermentation in the gut from eating too many beans, is to take a digestive enzyme containing Alpha Galactosidase, which is the enzyme that aids digestion of beans and pulses and helps to stop those embarrassing moments.
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How to reduce phytate
Soaking dried beans and whole grains
All dried beans such as chickpeas, butter beans and kidney beans need to be soaked and cooked before eating. But thankfully tinned and glass-bottled beans are ready soaked and cooked, and during the process they should have had the phytate removed. Wholegrains, including whole quinoa, pearled barley, pearled spelt, bulgar, freekeh, amaranth, millet, brown rice, wild rice and buckwheat groats, should be soaked to reduce phytate before cooking and this will also reduce the cooking time.
- Place dried beans or grains in a bowl and add enough water to cover.
- For each cup of beans, you need 1 tbsp of light vinegar as an acidic medium. It’s going down the sink afterwards, so it doesn’t have to be your best!
- Cover and soak for about 12 hours, rinsing and refreshing the water and acid a few times.
- It’s a good idea to rinse several times during the soaking time to prevent the beans or grains from starting to ferment.
- Rinse well before cooking.
You can also soak wholegrain flours such as wholemeal wheat flour, spelt, buckwheat, sorghum, teff and chickpea flour for recipes like pancakes, muffins or quick breads. This involves just pre-mixing the batter ahead of time with the addition of an acidic medium.
- Place the flour together with the non-perishable liquids from the recipe (water, oils, honey etc) in a glass bowl. Add 1 tbsp of acidic medium such as cultured dairy (buttermilk, kefir or yoghurt) or lemon juice/apple cider vinegar for every 1 cup of liquid used.
- Cover and allow to soak overnight in the fridge.
- Proceed with the recipe in the morning by adding the remaining perishable ingredients (such as the eggs, milk) and cook as directed.
Soaking and drying nuts and seeds
If you eat a lot of nuts and seeds, it may be wise to first activate them by removing the phytate. You can do this by soaking the nuts and seeds in salted water. You can then either use the soaked nuts to make a nut milk or you can rehydrate the nuts or seeds to make them dry and crunchy again by popping them in an oven or dehydrator. Always use a low temperature when drying nuts and seeds to retain the healthy fats. For ease and convenience, you can now buy activated nuts and seeds from health food shops and online that have been soaked and dehydrated.
- Place nuts in a bowl and cover with water. Add ½ tsp of salt for each cup of nuts.
- Soak overnight.
- Rinse the nuts and spread on a baking tray.
- Put them in the oven at 50°C for 12-24 hours (or place in a dehydrator at 50°C) until they are fully dry and crunchy. ⠀
- Store in a jar ready for snacks or adding to your recipes. Ensure the nuts/seeds are bone dry to prevent mould.
Remember if your diet regularly includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruits, salads and vegetables, then you probably don’t need to worry as you’ll be getting plenty of nutrition elsewhere. And don’t forget that tinned beans will have been soaked and cooked already and you can now buy activated nuts and seeds, so they are a great staple to keep in your larder.
But bean and grain afficionados may want to increase their nutritional value by soaking to break down the nutrient stealing phytate.
If you are ever worried about your nutrition status, please contact our clinic to talk to one of our NatureDoc practitioners.
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- The domestic processing of the common bean resulted in a reduction in the phytates and tannins antinutritional factors, in the starch content and in the raffinose, stachiose and verbascose flatulence factors
- Lectins, agglutinins, and their roles in autoimmune reactivities
- Is There Such a Thing as “Anti-Nutrients”? A Narrative Review of Perceived Problematic Plant Compounds
- Key Aspects of Myo-Inositol Hexaphosphate (Phytate) and Pathological Calcifications
- Phytic acid and its interactions: Contributions to protein functionality, food processing, and safety
- Diverse role of phytic acid in plants and approaches to develop low-phytate grains to enhance bioavailability of micronutrients
- Is iron and zinc nutrition a concern for vegetarian infants and young children in industrialized countries?
- Phytate in foods and significance for humans: food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis
- The effect of oral alpha-galactosidase on intestinal gas production and gas-related symptoms
- Changes in levels of phytic acid, lectins and oxalates during soaking and cooking of Canadian pulse