Whole grains and veggies are great for you, but they can also be a double-edged sword. These foods contain many important nutrients, but they also contain “antinutrients” – compounds that can reduce the absorption of nutrients by your body.
While these so-called “antinutrients” are of particular concern in societies which subsist on a diet based largely on grains and legumes, it’s worth learning about them regardless of where you live. There are many simple ways you can reduce the amount of these “antinutrients” in your food – even eliminating them completely in some cases.
An “antinutrient” is any plant compound that reduces the body’s ability to process and absorb essential nutrients. While most people don’t think too much about these compounds, they can be a problem if you’re malnourished.
Antinutrients aren’t necessarily always bad. Some, like the compound phytate, can have health benefits(1). Tannings, a commonly-studied antinutrient, is also an antioxidant(2). Other antinutrients which feature heavily in recent medical research include calcium oxalate, which is a form of calcium found in vegetables like spinach(3), protease inhibitors, which interfere with protein digestion(4), and lectins, which can be harmful when ingested in large enough amounts(5).
Dealing With Antinutrients
There are many ways you can reduce the amount of antinutrients in your food if you’re worried about ingesting too many of them. To start with, you can soak legumes – like beans – overnight to dissolve the skins (where most of the antinutrients are contained) and improve the food’s nutritional value(6). This process has been found to decrease the amounts of phytate, protease inhibitors, lectins, tannins and calcium oxalate found in legumes.
Another way to deal with antinutrients in legumes is to sprout them. This natural process, also known as germination, increases the availability of nutrients in seeds, grains and legumes(7). Sprouting can take a few days, but the process is fairly simple – just follow these steps:
- Rinse the seeds, grains or legumes in order to clean them.
- Soak them for anywhere from 2 to 12 hours, depending on what you are planning on sprouting.
- Rinse the soaked seeds, grains or legumes thoroughly.
- Drain water from the seeds, grains or legumes and place them in a sprouting vessel, placing them out of direct sunlight.
- Repeat the rinsing and draining processes regularly – once every 8-12 hours – until you see sprouts form from seeds, grains or legumes.
Sprouting can decrease the amount of antinutrients found in these foods; by how much depends on the food being sprouted(8).
Fermentation is an ancient method used to preserve food that can also help break down antinutrients in food and make them more gut-friendly. Fermentation occurs when microorganisms like bacteria or yeasts, start digesting carbs in food. When this happens by accident, the “fermented” food is generally considered spoiled – however, controlled fermentation can produce such popular foods as yogurt, cheese, wine, beer, coffee, cocoa, and certain types of bread like sourdough.
Finally, if none of those methods appeal to you, there’s always boiling – the process of, well, boiling your food before you eat it! This one is fairly straight forward; high heat, like the kind produced by boiling, can degrade antinutrients(9). The one exception to this process is phytate, which is heat-resistant(10).
It’s not unheard of for people to combine these methods in order to get rid of antinutrients entirely; for example, soaking, sprouting, and fermentation can be used to decrease the phytate found in quinoa(11). Combining methods may even cause some antinutrients to degrade completely.
Why It Matters
Antinutrients can reduce the nutritional value found in many plant-based foods. While you may not necessarily be concerned about this – especially if you already consume a balanced diet – it can be a big deal for those who are struggling to get the right amount of nutrients in their diet due to chronic illnesses or even eating disorders.