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To soak or not to soak---that is the question. You may have heard the words phytic acid before. Currently, there is a lot of media and attention surrounding the negative “anti-nutrient” effects of this compound. So what exactly is phytic acid? And should you be concerned?
The LOW DOWN
Phytic acid is a storage form of phosphorous found in plants—specifically in the bran portion of grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (although also found in other vegetables in lesser amounts). It’s role in the life of a plant to preserve and protect the seed until the seed is ready for germination. However, this compound can bind to minerals in the gut such as iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium sending them out for excretion in the stool rather than being absorbed. Phytic acid also reduces the digestibility of starches and proteins by inhibiting important enzymes required for their digestion found in the stomach and small intestine (1). Due to these properties individuals on a vegetarian or vegan diet need higher amounts of the aforementioned minerals. For example vegans need to consume more plant-based iron than omnivores because they consume more anti-nutrients, including phytates that reduce the bioavailability of iron and other minerals. Therefore the RDA for vegetarian diets is 1.8x greater than those for omnivores. For example females 19-50 years of age eating an omnivore diet require 18mg of iron whereas a vegetarian or vegan would required 32 mg (2). If the diet is poor in minerals and rich in phytates then nutrient deficiencies can develop. Children are often at an higher risk than adults due to their increased vitamin and mineral needs during times of growth.
The GOOD ATTRIBUTES
However, phytic acid also binds to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead promoting detoxification. Phytic acid has also been associated with reduced risks of cancer due to its antioxidant capabilities, and can be beneficial in individuals with hemochromatosis (an iron overload genetic disorder) (1,3). Also, the foods that contain phytic acid have a whole host of other beneficial properties, as they are generally nutrient dense if properly prepared, contain powerful plant compounds called phytochemicals, and are a great source of both insoluble and soluble fiber. Not to mention eating more plants is very important for overall health and longevity. So the question is not should you eat beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, but rather the question is how do you prepare them.
So, are you confused? Stay with me.
So technically yes, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains contain anti-nutrients, such as phytates, which can play a role in developing nutrient deficiencies. However, there are a few things you can do to make these plant based foods, the superstars that they are, and increase the bioavailability of their nutrients. By no means do I want to deter you from eating beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds as they are a wonderful part of a healthy diet. It is just that generally speaking the more phytate that is reduced the more beneficial the food becomes (3). To find our answer we must look back at our fore-fathers and see what they did, and what we may be missing today. More often than not traditional practices are in place for a reason.
One word—SOAK. Soaking grains and beans has been done for centuries. However, in today's day and age, we are just more crunched for time, and have forgotten the ways of the past. When we soak nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and grains before cooking them, the water stimulates an enzyme called phytase, which breaks down the phytate. This begins a natural phenomenon. A signal is sent to the dormant seed that it is now time to germinate, releasing the nutrients it needs to become a seedling. Although cooking does reduce some phytic acid, soaking the grains or beans in water prior to cooking will reduce the phytic acid by 8-50% depending on the duration and warmth of the water. The longer the seed is soaked, the more the phytic acid is reduced. Roasting grains, nuts, and seeds can also help reduce phytic acid content by about 40% (1,3). By reducing the phytate content, not only will you better absorb the nutrients, but YOU will also be better able to digest the foods in general. Most people experience less gas and bloating after consuming soaked grains and beans compared to the latter.
So generally speaking SOAK or ROAST if you can. Yes, it takes more time than opening a can, but not only do you gain nutritional benefits, but the flavor and texture is so much better when prepared from scratch. However, if you are in a pinch EDEN carries soaked and properly prepared canned beans. Although the texture isn’t perfect, they can fill in last minute.
This lentil salad recipe is a great weekday recipe. It is so versatile and flavorful you can use it with anything. I add it to tacos, use it as a side topped with pan seared sockeye salmon or roasted chicken legs, or even toss into a leafy green salad to add more heartiness. Full of fresh garlic, parsley, and capers, this salad has a vibrant personality—and a very good one at that. Rich in fiber and plant based protein, it can help fill you up and fuel you up simultaneously!
The Lentil Salad That Could
For the lentils:
1 cup dry beluga lentils
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Generous pinch sea salt
1 piece of kombu
Optional: low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
For the Salad:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
¼ cup capers, drained
1 bunch flat leafed parsley-finely chopped (~ 1 cup)
2 handfuls raw walnut halves
Cover the dry lentils with about 3 inches of filtered water. Mix in the teaspoon apple cider vinegar and pinch sea salt and allow to soak 4-8 hours. Then strain the lentils through a fine mesh sieve and rinse with cold water.
Transfer the lentils into a medium saucepan and cover with filtered water (or low sodium vegetable/chicken broth). Add in ½ kelp frond and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low (it should barely bubble) and leave the lid off. Set timer for 10 minutes. Taste test for tenderness—they should be firm, yet tender, and somewhat creamy in the inside. If not quite tender enough set timer for 2 more minutes…always make sure the lentils are covered with water. Do not overcook them because they will turn mushy. Once they are finished, strain through a fine mesh sieve, and rinse with cold water. Set the lentils aside.
Meanwhile preheat oven to 350 degrees—once preheated place the walnuts onto a baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and finely chop.
In a medium bowl mix together the first 6 dressing ingredients. Add the lentils and mix well with a spoon. Stir in the capers and the finely chopped parsley. Finally, add the chopped walnuts, stir to combine, and pour the salad into a nice serving dish.
1. Weston Price A. Price Foundation. Living with Phytic Acid. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/living-with-phytic-acid/. Accessed August 23, 2015.
2. National Institute of Health. Iron. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/. Accessed August 23, 2015.
3. Coulibaly A , Kouakou B, Chen J. Phytic Acid in Cereal Grains: Structure, Healthy or Harmful Ways to Reduce Phytic Acid in Cereal Grains and Their Effects on Nutritional Quality. American Journal of Plant Nutrition and Fertilization Technology. 2011. 11-22.