Phytic acid is often referred to as an "anti-nutrient" because it can block the absorption of minerals from foods. But phytic acid also has many positive effects on health. Nutrition Diva weighs the pros and cons.
Phytic acid has gotten a lot of bad press lately. It's true that this compound, which is found in legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, can bind to minerals and reduce their absorption. But there's a lot more to the phytic acid story.
What is phytic acid?
Phytic acid (or phytate) is a natural compound found in the seeds or kernels of plants. When seeds are planted in soil (or soaked in water), the phytic acid breaks down and releases phosphorus, which helps the sprouting plant develop healthy roots.
Phytic acid (or phytate) is a natural compound found in the seeds or kernels of plants.
But if we eat those seeds instead of planting them, we may absorb less calcium, iron, copper, and zinc from the foods that we eat at the same meal. That's because phytic acid has a tendency to bind to certain minerals and block their absorption from the small intestine. This is why phytic acid is sometimes referred to as an anti-nutrient; it reduces the amount of nutrients we absorb from foods.
What foods contain phytic acid?
Dried beans, nuts, seeds, and cereal grans like wheat, barley, oats, and rice all contain phytic acid. As a rule, beans and nuts are higher in phytic acid than cereal grains. The phytic acid is concentrated in the hull of the seed, and in the case of grains, the bran. If you remove the hull, you remove most of the phytic acid, too. White rice, for example, is much lower in phytic acid than brown rice.
Should you soak beans, nuts, and grains to remove phytates?
Soaking beans, nuts, and grains in water for 12 to 24 hours (or simply cooking them) breaks down most of the phytic acid. And mineral deficiencies due to phytic acid intake are generally not a concern in developed nations. Nonetheless, a lot of health conscious people soak or sprout all of their nuts and grains (or avoid them altogether!) in an effort to reduce their intake of phytic acid and increase their absorption of minerals.
Soaking is unnecessary and could cause you to miss out on important benefits.
Not only is this probably unnecessary, but these folks could actually be missing out on important benefits. It turns out that phytic acid is an important nutrient in its own right, and may help protect you from a number of serious diseases.
Concerns about phytic acid
I mentioned that phytic from foods can block the absorption of calcium from the digestive tract. So, you might expect that eating foods high in phytic acid would weaken your bones. But people who eat lots of beans and grains do not have a higher risk of osteoporosis. If anything, higher consumption of these phytate-rich foods is linked with stronger bones.
People who eat lots of beans and grains do not have a higher risk of osteoporosis. A phytate-rich diet may actually help protect against osteoporosis.
Women who have the most phytates circulating through their bodies actually have less bone loss and fewer fractures over time. So, far from increasing your risk, a phytate-rich diet may actually help protect against osteoporosis.
How is this possible? For one thing, it appears that when your diet is high in phytates, your body adjusts by decreasing the amount of calcium that gets excreted in the urine. In other words, your body conserves calcium to make up for reduced absorption from foods. Phytic acid also appears to block the formation of osteoclasts, which are cells that break down bone tissue. This, by the way, is exactly how osteoporosis drugs like Fosamax work.
Benefits of phytic acid
Phytic acid also appears to be important for cancer prevention. People who eat a lot of dried beans and whole grains are less likely to develop colon cancer, for example. For a long time, we assumed that this was due to the fiber in these foods. But then researchers noticed that some high-fiber diets seemed to be more protective than other high-fiber diets. Specifically, people who get a lot of their fiber from dried beans have lower rates of colon cancer than those who get the same amount of fiber from other sources. The additional benefit may be due to phytic acid.
People who eat a lot of dried beans and whole grains are less likely to develop colon cancer.
High-fiber diets have also been shown to help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Once again, however, this may not be entirely due to fiber. The phytic acid in certain high-fiber foods may play a unique role here. Phytic from dietary sources reduces the digestion of starch and the absorption of sugars from food, which helps modulate blood sugar levels. Phytic acid also affects the digestion of fats and the formation of cholesterol, and has a beneficial effect on risk factors for cardiovascular disease
In addition to reducing your risk of getting cancer, phytic acid may also be useful in the treatment of cancer. A recent study of women being treated for breast cancer found that taking relatively large amounts of IP-6 (which is another name for phytic acid) reduced side effects of chemotherapy and improved their quality of life.
I want to be very clear: IP-6 is not a miracle cancer cure and I advise you to steer clear of anyone who tries to sell it to you as such. However, it’s clear that phytic acid does a lot more than just get in the way of mineral absorption.
Moreover, there are times when phytic acids’ propensity to bind to minerals works in our favor. By binding to calcium, for example, phytic acid reduces the risk of kidney stones and hardened arteries. Phytic acid can also attach to lead and other toxic minerals and escort them safely out of the body. Last but certainly not least, phytic acid acts as an antioxidant.
Should you get more phytic acid in your diet?
As long as you eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods, the phytic acid in beans, grains, nuts and seeds is unlikely to cause mineral deficiencies.
So, what does all of this mean for you? How do we balance the advantages and disadvantages of phytic acid in the diet? As long as you eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods, the phytic acid in beans, grains, nuts and seeds is unlikely to cause mineral deficiencies. What’s more, phytic acid appears to have a lot of beneficial effects, so I wouldn’t go overboard in your attempts to avoid it.
For most people, the potential benefits of consuming foods rich in phytic acid probably outweigh any potential harm.