My favourite topics to write about are the topics that you, community members, ask me to address. Today’s topic comes from a community member. She asked: “Is there any truth to the idea that we should be soaking our nuts and grains to make these foods more digestible, more nutritious or to avoid so called ‘anti-nutrients’?”
Ah, the internet, such a double-edged sword. I love it – after all, it’s how I’m communicating with you today. And, I hate it. In my 23 years of experience in nutrition, I’ve never seen so many people so confused about nutrition.
This question is yet another example of how people are confused about nutrition. Both because of the powerful nutrition fear-mongering that unscrupulous people use to make money. And, because of well-intentioned people taking a fact so out of context that it no longer makes any sense.
In a nutshell (pun intended): no, you don’t need to soak nuts and grains.
Let’s get down into the details – because I know that’s what you like to get from me – the detailed story.
Anti-nutrients sure are a hot topic in the media (on-line and off-line). People are making a mountain out of a mole-hill. While the community member didn’t mention beans/ lentils in her question, I’m going to add them to the conversation because others of you have been asking me about the “poison” they’ve heard about in beans/ lentils.
Yes, it’s true that nuts, seeds, whole grains, bean and lentils have molecules called phytates in them. Phytates bind to nutrients, such as iron, making us humans less able to absorb the nutrients. Hence the term “anti-nutrients”. Note that the phytates make us absorb less of the nutrients – not zero. So their presence doesn’t render the foods devoid of nutrition. Also, these phytates aren’t poisonous – they don’t harm us.
Quite the opposite of being bad for us, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils are a key part of the foundation for a healthy diet. Combine these with vegetables and fruit and you’ve got a gold star in the eating habits department.
Whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils have been eaten by human beings for generations. If they were poisonous, we would have stopped eating them a long, long time ago. Humans have figured out many ways to reduce the phytates in these foods:
- Roasting nuts
- Leavening bread made from whole grains
- Soaking beans before cooking
- Fermenting foods (e.g. making miso from soybeans)
- Sprouting of grains, seeds, beans
So while you don’t need to soak these foods before eating them. Soaking, roasting, sprouting, fermenting is a great idea because it frees up more of the nutrients for us to absorb. In other words, it’s the concept of “need” with which I take issue.
Great choices to increase your nutrient-absorption:
- Try new recipes that involve soaking, roasting, sprouting, and fermenting.
- If you have a choice of sprouted whole grain bread or un-sprouted, choose the sprouted bread. But if un-sprouted is your only choice, it’s still a healthy choice.
- Soak beans before you cook them (and throw away the soaking water) because it makes them less “musical”.
- Many of the nuts that you find in the store are roasted, e.g. cashews, macadamia nuts.
- If you find that you have a hard time digesting some of these foods in their un-processed state, give them a try soaked/ sprouted/ fermented and see if your digestion improves.
Note: Raw sprouts aren’t recommended for children under 5 years due to the risk of microbes (e.g. salmonella, e. coli) causing food-poisoning.
Photo credit: Viktor Hanacek