First of all, it should be noted that antinutrients are natural components of food, particularly that of plant foods.
They are not man made, nor the product of genetic engineering. They are a normal part of the foods we eat.
Some of the more commonly discussed antinutrients are phytates (found in whole grains, nuts and legumes), lectins (in whole grains and legumes); tannins (in tea, wine, grapes, chocolate, nuts…), protease inhibitors (in legumes and grains) and saponins (in legumes, oats, quinoa, amaranth, soy…).
As you can see, the foods in which these antinutritional factors are found are those that we do consider healthy…high fiber legumes; and whole grains, nuts that contain heart-healthy fats, and nutrient-packed fruits and veggies.
If these antinutrients were only components of unhealthy foods, it would make the decision to cut them from our diet a no-brainer;…but they’re not. And that is what complicates the issue when “experts” try to persuade us to avoid them.
What Do Antinutrients Actually Do?
If these antinutrients are normal components of food, what is so bad about them?
What does the term antinutrient actually mean?
In general terms, if you think of nutrients as food components that provide us with something; then antinutrients are components which either take something away from us or inhibit nutrients from being absorbed.
In essence, antinutrients decrease the nutritive value of food in some way.
When you think of antinutrients like this, then yes, they sound pretty bad.
Why wouldn’t anyone with a bit of nutritional savvy want to avoid them?
Well, the truth is that the whole situation around antinutrients isn’t a clear cut black and white one.
Antinutrients: The Good and The Bad
Found in whole grains, legumes and nuts, dietary phytates are used by plants to store phosphorous.
Unfortunately, this phosphorous cannot be digested or absorbed by humans.
Instead, dietary phytates have a different function in our body.
- Phytate has a very good ability to bind to nutrients, particularly calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, copper; and some proteins. This means that once these nutrients bind to phytate our body cannot use them.
- While there have been cases of phytate-related nutritional deficiencies, they seem to be isolated (for the most part); to those in developing countries eating an unvaried, high cereal grain diets.
While the presence of dietary phytates can influence nutrient absorption, it is unlikely to impact overall nutritional status of those eating balanced and varied diets. That means a diet rich in fruits and vegetable, whole grains, unprocessed meats and/or legumes.
- Phytates only impact the nutrients with which they are consumed. They do not impact subsequent meals or snacks.
- The phytate content of foods is reduced by soaking, fermentation and boiling (which reduces phytates by 20%).
- Even for those most at risk for developing phytate-related nutritional deficiencies, vegans and vegetarians; the chance of their body not absorbing enough of the nutrients they need is low…if they are eating a balanced and varied diet and meeting their recommended daily intake of nutrients.
- If you consume meat regularly, then you don’t have to worry about the negative effects of phytate on iron, or even zinc.
- One study found that despite the higher phytate content of whole wheat bread, compared to white bread, more zinc was absorbed from consuming the whole wheat bread. This is because there is an overall higher level of zinc in whole wheat bread and it more than makes up for the higher phytate content. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture, don’t you?
- There is evidence that phytate improves glucose response (beneficial for those with diabetes), reduces kidney stones, has anti-cancer properties, and acts as an antioxidant.