'Antinutrients' Have the Food World Buzzing—But Should You Be Worried?

July 28, 2015
by Michelle Pellizzon for Thrive Market
'Antinutrients' Have the Food World Buzzing—But Should You Be Worried?

In the comic book universe, no superhero exists without an equally powerful villain to create dramatic tension. And the real-life world of nutrition isn't much different. Here, superfoods are the good guys, boosting your health with powerful antioxidants and vitamins. But lately, there's been a lot of talk about the danger posed by evil antinutrients—substances that lurk in many of the foods you consider healthy, and actually cause damage. But what, exactly, are they? And should you be afraid of them?

Antinutrients are exactly what they sound like: a compound that inhibits your body from absorbing nutrients. They exist to protect plants biochemically from predators, much like a suit of armor. Where are they found? Legumes, nuts, grains, and a host of other foods.

Phytic acid, The Most Notorious Antinutrient

Perhaps the most notorious antinutrient is phytic acid. Also known as phytate, it's found in plant seeds and is present in most nuts, grains, legumes, and soy. Phytic acid is an antinutrient because it prevents the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium in the body. You’d need to eat a ton of a phytic acid-heavy food (seriously, think basically eating only raw almonds and pretty much nothing else for six months) in order to see negative effects, but you can offset phytic acid through sprouting, soaking, and fermenting these foods.

If you follow a Paleo diet, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. But do you know about the other sources of antinutrients that might be lurking in your healthy diet?

Two More Antinutrients: Goitrogens and Oxalates

Stay with us, we’re gonna get science-y. Goitrogens and oxalates are two other common antinutrients found in your favorite healthy foods. Goitrogens depress thyroid function and can mess with the way your thyroid excrete hormones. That’s bad news for your metabolism.

These thyroid-destroying compounds are found green veggies that are usually celebrated for their health benefits: broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and soybeans. Confused? The short answer is that the health benefits outweigh any risk, and on top of that, goitrogens are easily neutralized by cooking or fermenting. So if you're worried, give those Brussels sprouts a quick sauté.

Oxalates are another antinutrient making waves laterly. Similar to phytic acid, they, too, bind to minerals and inhibit your body’s absorption. Spinach, quinoa, raspberries, collards, chard, and blueberries are just a few of the delicious and otherwise uber-healthy foods that contain oxalates. In fact, many of these foods are considered superfoods because of their high nutrient value. The minimal oxalate count in your blueberries won't negate the health benefits, and just like their other antinutrient counterparts, cooking these foods reduce their effectiveness. Noticing a trend?

Don't Miss The Point When Dealing with Antinutrients

So now that you know the deal with antinutrients, you need to remember that you shouldn’t be that worried about them. Yes, they can be harmful to your health, but you’d have to be eating copious amounts of raw veggies and nuts and legumes and almost nothing else over many months to see negative effects. Ideally, we try to eat as well as we can, and that’s why some avoid antinutrients. But if you’re skipping out on vegetables, fruits, and legumes in an attempt to stay healthy, you might be missing the whole point.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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This article is related to: Beans, Nuts, Paleo, Raw

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  • sl

    Phytic acid is of no real concern. As a matter of fact, many foods bind somewhat with iron, for example--if they didn't our cells would have dangerous overloads of iron. Here is a good overview of the "problem": http://www.drcarney.com/topics/item/257-phytic-acid-in-grains-no-problem#.V1LIg-SJIpk