I recently delved into an experimental ‘fully-vegan diet’ experience. Meaning I’d ditched my free-range/organic eggs, etc. and as a result relied solely on the following sources of plant foods for protein: tofu, soy protein products, grains, lentils, chickpeas.
But after a brief visit from my dad, he commented on the large amount of PHYTIC-RICH foods I was consuming. ‘Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient chemical compound found most concentrated in nuts, legumes, grains’
What was worrying him was that the combination of a PHYTIC-RICH, MODERATLY-LOW PROTEIN, MEAT-FREE diet in combination to myself being pretty tiny with feebly arms and legs, made CALCIUM-LOSS and INHIBITED GROWTH a pressing issue for me.
Before I elaborate on the especially harmful effects of the phytic acid in plants particularly on vegetarians/vegans, etc. let me briefly tell you what ‘phytic acid’ is.
What is ‘Phytic acid’?
“Phytic acid is the principal storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues, especially the bran portion of grains and other seeds.”
‘Phytic acid’ is the acid form of phosphorus. Our bodies cannot transform it (unlike animals with a second stomach like cows, sheeps, etc.) into the vital mineral phosphorus and make use of it (not readily bio-available).
Other than that, the phytic acid molecule also binds to other essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, making these nutrients found in food unable to be absorbed/used by our body.
The combined form of phytic acid is called ‘phytate’ (just FYI).
Phytic acid is also an enzyme-inhibitor, it interferes with the workings of various digestive enzymes in our bodies e.g. pepsin = protein-digestion, trypsin = protein-digestion in small intestines, leading to digestive problems, etc. *explains some people’s inability to stomach legumes!*
Why is ‘Phytic acid’ especially bad for vegans/vegetarians or plant-based eaters?
We already know that phytic acid prevents our bodies from properly obtaining essential minerals like phosphorus, zinc (bone growth, and growth in general), iron, apparently vitamin B *niacin* (both important regulators of body functions/energy-levels), calcium and even protein! (already found in a lesser amount in plant sources)
But because plant-based eaters base their protein source on phytic rich foods, (like legumes, nuts, etc) which already don’t contain as many bio-available vitamins and minerals (such as iron, calcium, etc.) as animal products (like red meat) the phytic acid content makes absorbing these nutrients even harder!
Vegetarians are much better off as a portion of their protein also comes from animal products like dairy (butter, cheese, milk) and eggs which can actually counteract the effects of phytic acid.
Nutrient-deficiency effects of ‘phytic acid’
From what I’ve mentioned we see that phytic acid grabs onto essential nutrients needed to maintain good health, growth and overall maintenance of the body.
It grabs onto phosphorus and calcium resulting in deficiency of these minerals leading to…
1. Tooth decay (phosphorus + calcium makes up the teeth and bones)
2. Weak bones and osteoporosis
3. Inhibited growth in children, teens, anyone still growing (not enough calcium to make up bone mass!)
It also takes away iron, vitamin B’s, zinc resulting in…
1. Anemia (often feeling lethargic)
2. Mental retardation (lack of oxygen to brain, vitamin B’s carry oxygen)
These effects will begin to take their toll over a prolonged period of time on a phytic-rich diet i.e. why Western diets, which are comprised of a large amount of cereal grains, result in a large proportion of the population developing osteoporosis.
Phytic acid contents in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains
Anything that’s a bean, nut, grain, seed all contains varying levels of phytic acid.
The most is found in nuts and seeds (that’s why you should stick with the one handful a day rule!), beans like SOY, followed by grains (especially whole grains i.e. phytic acid is found in the bran).
|Food||[% minimum dry]||[% maximum dry]|
|Whole wheat bread||0.43||1.05|
|Soy protein concentrate||1.24||2.17|
|Sesame seeds flour||5.36||5.36|
As you can see, even 2-3 servings of these foods (not properly prepared) can provide an excess of phytic acid into our diet.
What is our solution to minimizing nutrient-deficiency caused by phytic acid?
(Me going nutty with sprouting)
The way our ancestors first began to prepare these foods for consumption would actually suffice for reducing the phytic-acid levels in nuts, legumes, etc.
This is mostly done through the often laborious measure of soaking, sprouting, repeatedly heated, roasting, etc.
But what’s worrying is that our modern methods of consuming these foods have diverged from the traditional way.
1. Lack of time nowadays, we often don’t take the time to soak or sprout our beans/grains before consumption. Brown rice which contains a significant amount of phytic acid should be soaked for at least 24 hours before cooking time to reduce phytic acid levels by increasing the amount of phytase (phytate digesting enzymes already present in the plants). Then heating thoroughly each time before consumption.
Adding an ACID medium to the soaking water will also greatly help increase the amount of phytase. examples of acids are the probiotic culture in yoghurt, lemon juice, vinegar.
Sprouting beans, seeds and nuts for at least 3-4 days also have a similar effect.
2. Going raw and unrefined following the recent trend of HEALTH-CRAZE MOVEMENTS, we are now pushed towards a diet of RAW nuts, seeds, or WHOLE GRAIN produce instead of roasted or milled grains. However, whole grains contain a larger amount of phytic acid compared with refined grains like white rice with their hulls and bran removed. *Perhaps this is why white rice remains an integral part of a healthy Asian diet?*
And raw nuts contain higher levels of phytic acid than roasted nuts.
The concept of flowing with the nature of things sounds ideal and healthy, but did our early ancestors stick with the whole unrefined method of things? The painstaking measures of preparing foods would have evolved and become such widely common practices for a reason.
In conclusion, if you’re a plant-eater consuming more than 400-800 mg of phytic acid from legumes, seeds, nuts, grains, (1 cup of cooked, untreated brown rice = 400+ mg) daily, or basically, if you’re consuming these foods as your main source of calories/protein (pretty much all vegans) you should consider taking some measures in reducing the phytic acid levels in your food!
What you can do as first measures include…
1. Reducing the amount of foods with the highest levels of phytic acid (refer to table above) e.g. soy products! (I know a lot of vegans, and even I myself rely on way too much processed soy products for protein) and nuts (just a handful a day!).
Keeping processed soy products to a minimum.
2. Soaking and sprouting legumes, nuts (if you are willing to sacrifice the crunch!), grains every time before consumption. For a period of at least 2-3 days or even more, with an acidic medium, or by adding yeast *this is why sourdough bread is actually pretty healthy (all phytic acid eliminated through fermentation process)*
Example of traditional treatment of grains:
“Oats are a staple in the diet of the Scots and Gaelic islanders, a people known for their robust good health and freedom from tooth decay… some Scottish and Gaelic recipes do call for a long fermentation of oats before and even after they are cooked.”
3. Pairing these legumes, grains, etc. with complementary foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin D and calcium. And also probiotic foods.
For example, (for vegetarians) yoghurt or milk with cereal, whole grain bread with dairy products such as cheese, miso soup and seaweed with rice and tofu.
Cooking with green weed leaves like dandelion or chickweed can help reduce the mineral stealing effects of phytic acid.
4. Go for alternatives e.g. white rice to brown rice (but if you’re worried about GI index) the best solution would be milled rice which has some bran, husks removed but still maintains the amount of fiber. Rye flour (very low phytic acid levels) to whole grain.