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According to the Journal of Functional Foods (opens in new tab), antinutrients is a term used to describe plant compounds traditionally considered harmful to health due to their potential to interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients. They appear to be a form of defense mechanism with which plants protect themselves from the dangers posed by insects and harmful microbes. In humans, antinutrients are thought to lead to nutritional deficiencies, bloating, nausea, rashes and headaches.
At the same time, a 2020 review published in Nutrients (opens in new tab) revealed that scientists are increasingly questioning the general advice to avoid foods containing antinutrients. The evidence is growing that many of these antinutrients may actually be beneficial to our health.
According to a review published in the Journal of Functional Foods (opens in new tab), whether antinutrients are harmful may depend on a range of different factors. For example, most negative effects are observed when foods rich in antinutrients are eaten raw. However, when they are cooked or processed, for example through soaking, sprouting, germination, fermentation or milling, they do not tend to have similar negative effects.
They may also have different properties depending on whether they are consumed on their own, or as a part of a balanced meal. And how antinutrients affect you may be linked to your metabolism and health status too. Not to mention, most of the available evidence comes from animal and in vitro studies, rather than high quality clinical trials. As a result, it is difficult to say whether it can be extrapolated to human beings.
Oxalates are strong organic acids found mostly in green leafy vegetables, tea, beans, nuts and beetroots. They have the ability to bind to calcium, iron and zinc, creating water-insoluble salts. Oxalates have also been traditionally linked to an increased risk of developing kidney stones. But as with most antinutrients, the science behind this claim is not black and white.
Phytates (mostly phytic acid) are phosphorus-based compounds found mostly in whole grain cereals, pulses, nuts and seeds. According to the Journal of Functional Foods (opens in new tab), oats, dry fava beans and amaranth are the richest sources of these antinutrients. Phytates can bind to zinc, iron and calcium under the acidic pH in the stomach, reducing their bioavailability in the digestive tract.
However, whether they can have negative effects on our health may depend on several factors. It appears that phytates are less harmful when they are ingested as a part of a balanced meal. Moreover, vitamin C has been shown to reduce the negative effects of phytates. It also needs to be pointed out that cooking, soaking, fermentation and germination can decrease the levels of these antinutrients.
Tannins are a group of bitter-tasting polyphenols present in many different plants. The highest concentration of these antinutrients is typically characteristic of legumes, coffee, tea, wine and grapes. According to the Trends in Food Science & Technology (opens in new tab), tannins can slow down digestive enzymes and affect the absorption of micronutrients, particularly iron.
As opposed to many other antinutrients, tannins are resistant to heat. However, their negative effects may be reduced by eating iron absorption enhancers. These may include vitamin C, meat, fish and poultry.
Antinutrients are naturally occurring compounds in plant foods that limit the bioavailability of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients during digestion, says Lauren Minchen, a nutritionist based in New York City. Common antinutrients include phytates and lectics (found in grains, beans, legumes, and nuts) and polyphenols (coffee, tea, and wine). Some vegetables, including eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers, also contain antinutrients. In living plants, the compounds act as a natural defense system against disease by bonding to molecules in the cell walls of invading fungi, bacteria, and pests. When we consume them, instead of binding to molecules in the cell walls, antinutrients bind to micronutrients. For example, phytates bond to carbohydrates, and lectins bond to minerals. When that happens in the gut, the body is unable to absorb those nutrients efficiently.
Beyond nutrient absorption, most studies on antinutrients are done on raw foods in a laboratory setting, not within the context of a diet pattern, so we need more science to put their role in the body into perspective, Palmer says.
Some vegetables have high levels of antinutrients, or things that make them less appetizing to predators (including humans). But about a million years ago, we learned a neat little trick to destroy said antinutrients. Fire.
Yes, cooking is a great way to increase the nutritional content of vegetables. Put in another way, a 100% raw food diet is essentially mineral-deficient; due to a combination of antinutrients and the lack of micronutrient-dense foods like red meat, vegetarian diets are also relatively mineral deficient. 1 2
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add your raw spinach for about 3 minutes, then immediately pour it through a colander. While longer times such as 10 minutes have been shown to be very effective at minimizing antinutrients 5, the scientific outcome is somewhat at odds with the culinary one (spinach gets mushy when over boiled).
Although most plant foods contain antinutrients, when properly prepared, they are safe to consume. (7) In fact, some antinutrients have actually been shown to provide health benefits: phytates, for example, have been found to lower cholesterol, slow digestion, and prevent sharp rises in blood sugar. (8)(9) Moreover, most antinutrients can be removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling before consumption, and some traditional methods of preparation, such as fermenting, have been shown to increase nutritional value.
Many traditional methods of food preparation are known to reduce antinutrients and increase the nutritional value of plant foods. The following methods of food preparation can be used individually or in combination to reduce the impact of antinutrients.
Soaking: Soaking grains, beans, and legumes in water prior to preparation is a simple yet effective way to deactivate enzyme inhibitors. (10) Many of the antinutrients are found in the skin and are water-soluble and, therefore, dissolve in water. For example, soaking whole grains in water overnight or in water with an acidic medium such as lemon juice or cider vinegar can help to neutralize phytic acid. Soaking is often used in combination with sprouting, fermenting, or boiling.
Antinutrients are natural compounds found in plant foods, including whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and some vegetables, that can interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Although antinutrients can make certain foods more difficult to digest and their nutrients less bioavailable, when properly prepared, antinutrient-containing foods are generally not of concern and can be consumed in a healthy diet.
Most of the antinutrients in pulses, like peas, and legumes, like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are found in the skin. These antinutrients are water-soluble, meaning that they dissolve when they are exposed to water.
Sourdough is a great example of the use of fermentation to improve nutrient availability. Sourdough fermentation is more effective at increasing grain nutrient availability than yeast fermentation. The natural fermentation process reduces the antinutrients that bind to dietary minerals in the bread to make them more readily available for use by the human body.
It might make you nervous to know that the cooking and preparation methods mentioned above only partially eliminate antinutrients in food. However, certain phytonutrients in small amounts have health benefits as well.
The only population that should have special considerations for antinutrients are people at risk of nutrient deficiencies, like iron-deficiency anemia, or nutrient-related degenerative diseases, like osteoporosis. In these cases, people can work to choose foods lower in phytonutrients, soak, ferment, sprout, or boil them, and make sure to eat balanced and varied meals throughout the day.
Current thinking is that as plants evolved, they developed antinutrients to help ensure their survival. Seeds in fruits, for example, often contain antinutrients which taste bitter. Certain animals deciding to enjoy a piece of fruit will most likely just eat the fleshy part and discard the seeds. The seeds then hit the ground, germinate and produce new fruit. If the seeds were sweet, they would be eaten and that plant line would eventually die out.
The solution I use to minimize the impact of any antinutrients and maximize the nutritional value of my meals is pretty simple. I first think about what I want and need to eat; second, I think about which foods I will combine and which I will eat alone; and third, I think about how I am going to prepare them. Here is how I do it:
The negative effect of antinutrients is mainly due to their effect on the absorption and utilization of nutrients. For example, legumes contain compounds called enzyme inhibitors. In particular, an enzyme inhibitor called trypsin inhibitor, present in soybean. These enzyme inhibitors prevent digestion of dietary proteins and make then unavailable as nutrients, leading to protein deficiencies and related health disorders.
There are some misconceptions with regards to what antinutrients are and their impact on human health. By definition, antinutrients are compounds, either natural or synthetic, that prevent the utilization of nutrients. As a result of this concept, antinutrients were considered by nutritionists as being undesirable and compounds that needed to be removed from our foods by processing or genetics. However, recent research has shown that what we consider as antinutrients may in fact be beneficial to our health.
Dietary fiber is a good example of how antinutrients may actually be beneficial. There was no known nutritional role for dietary fiber; in fact, it was believed that dietary fiber could bind to minerals and some other nutrients and make them unavailable. As a result, cereal process technology was developed to remove or reduce dietary fiber from cereals and flours. Now we know that dietary fiber serves a very important role in our health; fiber benefits include action as a laxative, function as substrates for fermentation in the colon and the production of volatile fatty acids, action in slowing the rate of nutrient transit through the gastrointestinal tract, absorption and thereby prevention of nutrient surges, and perturbation in the entire metabolic responses. Fiber is now considered to play a beneficial role in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and many other chronic human diseases. So, dietary fiber, once thought to be an antinutrient, is now considered beneficial. 153554b96e