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Phytic acid helps little seedlings sprout and grow into strong plants. It is the storage form of the mineral phosphorous, which means that it keeps phosphorus tucked away until the sprouting seed is ready to use it.
However, in your body, phytic acid is an anti-nutrient. In other words, it doesn’t nourish your body—it steals from your body.
Phytic acid is found in:
You will find phytic acid in the hull or outer shell. Once a seed has germinated, there is far less phytic acid.
When you eat unprepared seeds, legumes, nuts, or grains—you are also eating large quantities of phytic acid.
Beans contain phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to important minerals and can cause mineral deficiency. Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting certain foods can lower their phytic acid content and make them easier to digest.
Phytic acid can’t help but bind to minerals like:
Phytic acid binds to the minerals in your digestive tract. When it binds to these minerals, salts are formed. Most of these salts are excreted. Over time, a diet that is rich in phytic acid can lead to mineral deficiency or mineral depletion. Iron and zinc are particularly susceptible to deficiency. (2)(3)
Who is most at risk?
According to Eugene Anderson, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, niacin binds to phytic acid. (4) Corn, for example, is low in niacin—or vitamin B3—and high in phytic acid. In other words, a diet that is high in untreated corn can lead to severe B3 deficiency.
Traditional methods that were used to prepare corn got around this potential health hazard with a process called nixtamalization. (5)
Vitamin B3 deficiency is serious and can be deadly. Pellagra is one disease that results from extreme vitamin B3 deficiency. It causes dementia, diarrhea, skin disorders, and eventually death. These days, food is often fortified with vitamin B3 and quickly processed to prevent pellagra. But at the turn of the 19th Century, this was not the case in the American south.
Between 1906 and 1940, pellagra affected more than 3 million Americans. Over 100,000 people died. During this time, most people did not understand that it was caused by a simple nutrient deficiency— from not soaking their corn in alkaline water before eating it.
Seeds are difficult to digest for a reason. In order for a seed to become a plant, it must survive until the conditions of its environment are just right. Without phytic acid, a seed would not have enough energy to sprout.
In fact, researchers are currently designing low phytate seeds through genetic engineering. The problem: Many of the seeds are not able to grow into healthy plants. (6)
Other studies show that phytic acid acts as an antioxidant in the seed. Seeds that are designed to be “low phytate” do not thrive. They are more susceptible to DNA damage and to free-radical stress. Low phytate seeds that grow into plants also show early signs of degeneration, or aging. (7)
In the human body, phytic acid acts like an antioxidant. (8) Research suggests that it may even stop the growth of cancer—including ovarian, breast, and liver cancer. (9)
However, it is important to weight the benefits of phytic acid against the risks. And while phytic acid shows promising results against cancer cells in the lab, studies are not conclusive in the human body.
There are plenty of antioxidant-rich foods that you can eat without leaching minerals from your body. In spite of the antioxidants available in phytic acid, we suggest soaking and even sprouting all seeds, legumes, nuts, and grains.
If you eat a plant-based diet, you may rely on seeds, legumes, nuts, and grains for energy and essential nutrients. The problem with modern food processing and even with home processing is that many of us do not know how to properly prepare these foods.
For example, you can find a wide variety of nut butters at the market. Yet standard processing and heat only minimally reduce levels of phytic acid.
If you want to reduce phytic acid, research shows that soaking is better. Sprouting your nuts before you process them is best. Exceptions to this rule are macadamia nuts and pine nuts, which are naturally low in phytic acid. (10)
To enhance digestibility, properly prepare all seeds, legumes, nuts, and grain-like seeds before enjoying them:
1. Soak: While many people skip this step and cook their grain-like seeds or beans right away—do not underestimate the value of a long soak. (11)(12) Soaking reduces anti-nutrients like phytic acid. It also makes them easier to digest.
Soak your grain-like seeds and legumes for at least 8–24 hours, changing the water every 8 hours. Use only filtered water. If you are cooking a grain-like seed, add an acidic medium—like unfiltered apple cider vinegar—to the soak water. If you are cooking beans, add an alkalizing medium, like Celtic sea salt.
2. Sprout: If you would like to sprout your seeds, you will need to dedicate more time to soaking, rinsing, and draining your seeds until they sprout. It may take several days for your seeds to sprout, but you might find them well worth the wait. Some sprouted foods you can enjoy raw—like almonds or buckwheat. Others, like black beans, you will want to cook.
Studies show that sprouted seeds, legumes, nuts, and grains have even less phytic acid than those that are only soaked. They are also easier to digest. (13)(14)
3. Ferment: Fermentation happens when you add a starter culture that contains good bacteria to the food that you would like to ferment. Traditionally, foods high in phytic acid are ground or milled into flour before fermenting. (15)(16)
Research shows that fermentation makes the protein in grains, grain-like seeds, and legumes more available for your body to use. (17)(18)(19)
The traditional methods of seed preparation—like soaking, sprouting, and fermentation—have been around for thousands of years. And while soaking, sprouting, and fermentation may take several hours to several days, these methods enhance your digestion and safeguard against nutrient deficiencies.
Phytic acid is found in seeds, beans, nuts, and grains. While it is necessary to help plants grow, it is also an anti-nutrient that steals precious minerals from your body. These minerals include iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and copper.
Yes, phytic acid can lead to a mineral deficiency, especially in children, pregnant women, vegans, and vegetarians. Phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds, and beans has also been linked to vitamin B3 deficiency, which can be deadly if left untreated.
To better digest your favorite foods, consider these 3 preparation tips for a plant-based diet:
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