What is phytic acid, and why neutralize it in grains and beans?

What is phytic acid, and why neutralize it in grains and beans?
Phytic acid, also known as IP6, phytate and inositol hexaphosphate, is a natural antioxidant which is found in plant seeds. Basically, it is the form in which plants store phosphorus. 

Phytic acid is also known as an anti-nutrient as it blocks the absorption of iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, leading to mineral deficiencies in the long run. So when we consume foods high in phytates, it prevents the absorption of minerals by binding to them in the gut before our body can absorb them. Our bodies do not have any enzymes capable of breaking down phytates so we are unable to absorb those nutrients, which are then excreted as waste. 

Despite being called anti-nutrient, phytic acid is not all bad. In fact, it has a lot of nutritional value as well. For many, it serves as an anti-oxidant and may help against insulin resistance. Recent studies have found it to be very effective in the prevention and treatment of certain kinds of cancer.

Phytic acid is only found in food derived from plants. What that means is all edible seeds, nuts, legumes, grains and certain vegetables contain phytic acid in varying amounts. However, if you are eating a well-balanced diet, there is little cause for worry. 

Phytic acid and when is it beneficial?

Phytic acid does have therapeutic benefits: for example, IP6 (inositol hexaphosphate) is used in cancer therapy and is essentially the phytic acid in brown rice and other grain, legumes, and seeds in general. Ingesting foods with it may also have a cleansing effect on the body, as it is known to bind with calcium, iron, and many mineral excesses- in the soft tissues of the body first. 

Individuals who are embarking on a diet of unrefined foods for the first time, may actually be helped by phytic acid as it will help remove any calcium deposits which may have resulted post-eating dairy foods and refined foods.

The following foods naturally contain phytic acid, the phytic acid of grains is in the bran, therefore, even a moderate amount of bran will cause a sizable concentration of phytic acid in the body, which depletes zinc and other minerals  –

Grains – Like whole wheat, oats and rice. They contain phytic acid only if they have not been processed

Beans and legumes – Like soybeans, black beans, kidney beans and lentils

Nuts and seeds – Walnuts, pine nuts, brazil nuts, almonds and sesame seeds

Tubers – Like potatoes, carrots, turnips and beets 

But if were to avoid all food items with phytic acid, we would be denying ourselves of a lot of healthy options. Grains and legumes are a staple diet in many areas. 

So how do we deal with phytic acid? We can reduce the phytic acid content of many foods by changing the way we cook and prepare them. Soaking, sprouting and fermentation are some of the methods that we can use to bring down the phytates present in food. 

Incidentally, this fact was known to our ancestors and the tradition of soaking cereals and legumes before cooking is a common practice. In fact, cooking legumes for an hour brings down the phytic acid content by almost 80 per cent.

How to reduce anti-nutrient effects of phytic acid in food

Soaking - Cereals and legumes are soaked overnight to bring down the phytic acid content.

Sprouting - The germination or sprouting of many legumes, seeds and grains helps in breaking up phytates. Soaking for up to 12 hours 4 parts water to 1 part legume. For better results change the water once or twice. Soaking softens skins and begins the sprouting process, which eliminates phytic acid, thereby making more minerals available. 

Fermentation – Lactic acid fermentation also helps in phytate breakdown.

Processing – Removing the bran from the grain decreases the phytic acid content. But it often tends to remove most of the minerals as well.
One can also consume food rich in vitamin C with meals that contain phytic acid, use vinegar in salad dressings and cooking to enhance mineral absorption and eat mineral fortified food. Finally, we can also go for mineral supplements if our diet still falls short.

Generally, by the time most of this food reaches our plate, it does not contain enough phytates to cause a problem as it has usually gone through the process of soaking, sprouting, fermentation or processing.
As long as we are following a healthy yet diverse diet, phytic acid is not a problem. It can only be problematic if our diet is restricted to food like grains and legumes. In fact, it’s the vegans and vegetarians who are more likely to be at risk here of developing mineral deficiency and not meat eaters. 

As phytic acid is found in so many foods which are known to be nutritious, it is not advisable to look at eliminating it from our diet.  As an antioxidant, it has many health benefits. 

Eating a balanced diet allows us to not only receive the benefits of phytic acid but also control the amount we consume. Only those who are known to have mineral deficiency need exercise some caution and monitor their consumption of phytic acid. 

Benefits of phytic acid 

Protects against cancer and helps remove free radicals - As an antioxidant, phytic acid helps remove free radicals from our body. If not checked, these free radicals can lead to breast and prostate cancer. Phytic acid is known to especially protect us from colon cancer. It is also said to reduce the effects of chemotherapy. 

Prevents osteoporosis - A diet rich in phytates is also known to help prevent osteoporosis. Post-menopausal women who consume less phytates are actually at a greater risk of bone loss and hip fracture. 

After weighing the pros and cons, one can only conclude that instead of looking at ways and means to eliminate phytic acid from our diet, we should instead focus on neutralising and reducing its consumption. 
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