Nuts and seeds are full of health promoting nutrients. They’re a highly versatile food – you can simply grab a handful as a snack, add them to all sorts of dishes such as salads, curries and stir-fries, make nut/seed milks and butters and create a whole host of raw food recipes such as non dairy cheese, pizza bases, sauces and raw desserts (see my post on zucchini pasta for a recipe).
However, if you don’t prepare them properly, these health promoting nuts and seeds could cause a great deal of stress for your body.
Nuts and seeds (as well as grains, beans and other legumes) contain phytic acid which is the storage system for phosphorus. The nuts and seeds keep hold of the phytic acid until conditions are right for them to germinate. As soon as germination can take place, the phytic acid is broken down, releasing the stored phosphorous which helps in the growth of the plant.
Phytic acid also helps the nut or seed to ward off disease and assist in its survival. Mother Nature gave these seeds protection from digestive enzymes so they could pass through the digestive tract of an animal without being broken down. This gives the seed an opportunity to survive (and even thrive) as it’s mixed with the animal’s faeces, providing it with the fertiliser it needs to assist in its growth.
This means that if you consume nuts and seeds without preparing them properly, you won’t digest them fully (even if you do chew them properly before swallowing). This can irritate the gastrointestinal tract causing stomach pains and a variety of other problems.
Phytic acid also prevents minerals such as calcium, magnesium iron and zinc from being absorbed during digestion. Therefore most of those lovely minerals contained within the nuts and seeds (and in anything else you eat at the time) will simply pass straight through you. If you eat food rich in phytic acid at most meals, you will be running the risk of suffering mineral deficiencies. This is why phytic acid has been called the anti-nutrient.
It’s worth noting that phytic acid will only interfere in the absorption of minerals with the food you’re eating at the time. So if you eat a handful of nuts and seeds as a snack, it will only prevent the minerals contained within that food from being absorbed – it won’t interfere with a meal you eat two hours later (unless that meal contains phytic acid of course).
So how can you reduce phytic acid in foods?
Firstly, I wouldn’t recommend cutting out all foods that contain phytic acid as they’re highly nutritious, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan. So all you need to do is make sure you soak your nuts and seeds to reduce the amount of phytic acid within them.
Another good way of reducing phytic acid in food is by sprouting. As I mentioned earlier, when a seed germinates it breaks down the phytic acid so it can use the stored phosphorous for its growth. Plus sprouting increases the nutrients too, yay to that! Fermentation is another method for reducing the amount of phytic acid. Hmmm, maybe sprouting and fermentation are subjects for another blog!
Here’s a useful diagram courtesy of rouxbe.com which lists all the soaking and sprouting times for nuts and seeds as well as grains, beans and other legumes.
How to soak
Make sure you buy raw nuts and seeds (not salted or roasted) and if possible make sure they’re organic.
Rinse them in a colander or sieve and put them into a large bowl.
Pour fresh water (preferably filtered water) over the top so the water is about 2 inches above the nuts or seeds.
Cover with a clean tea-towel or cloth so they can breathe.
Leave to soak for the recommended time (see chart above)
After soaking, thoroughly rinse your nuts or seeds, making sure you discard all the water as this will contain phytic acid.
Your nuts and seeds can now be kept in the fridge for up to 2 days or you can dehydrate them to keep them for a longer period of time.
By the way, be aware that a lot of the commercial nut butters such as peanut butter and almond butter haven’t been soaked before processing.
Is phytic acid all bad?
No! As I mentioned above, phytic acid helps the seed to ward off disease — and it can do that for you too. It’s an antioxidant and may have several health benefits such as prevention of kidney stones and certain types of cancer. So feel free to enjoy your nuts, seeds, beans, other legumes and grains – but just soak, sprout and/or ferment them to reduce the amount of phytic acid, and make sure you’re not eating them with every meal.
A helping hand
If you do eat a lot of foods rich in phytic acid, then I would consider taking digestive enzymes that include phytase with your meals to give your digestion a helping hand. Phytase is a digestive enzyme that can ‘unlock’ the phytic acid, releasing the phosphorous and assisting your body to absorb the minerals.
How do you enjoy your nuts and seeds? Comment below…
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