What Are Anti-Nutrients, And Should You Worry About Them In Your Food?
One of the more infuriating aspects of nutrition education is the highly confusing anti-nutrients debate.
For example, hot issues include but are not limited to….
- Grains have PHYTATES.
- Spinach has OXALATES.
- Apple seeds have CYANIDE.
- Legumes have PURINES.
- Broccoli and cabbage have GOITROGENS.
Recent scare tactics about these anti-nutrients originate primarily from charismatic internet personalities who use this needless fear to sell their own products. While their reports that all grains and many fruits and vegetables contain anti-nutrients are true, the demonizing of these whole foods as dangerous is evidence that you aren’t being told the whole story.
No one addresses this issue more logically than my friend Jim Simmons, whose book Original Fast Foods I highly recommend. Jim’s book is excellent, well researched, and comprehensive, with good recipes. It’s the closest thing out there to the diet I teach.
(There are lots of raw-food recipe books, but people burn out from how labor-intensive they can be. Eating cooked legumes and whole organic grains is a way to eat a whole-foods diet without burnout, and with the high-fiber, high-nutrition, low-effort gains of foods like split peas, lentils, and black beans. I am suspicious of any eating plans that bans such foods. I advocate for 60-80% raw plant foods—but I feel that some cooked vegetables, legumes, and grains are a wonderfully healthy part of a good disease-preventative diet, as evidenced by long history.)
Here’s what Jim said to me via email, when I posted on the goitrogens issue a while back:
“Research now supports the idea that anti-nutrients are nature’s way of helping us to be more intuitive in our eating patterns. For instance, some spinach is really good for you, but as you consume too much, the level of oxalates will build up in your bloodstream to a point that a signal will be sent to your brain and then a signal is sent from the brain to your endocrine system. The long and the short is, you will lose your appetite for spinach until the level of oxalates drop sufficient that your taste for spinach is turned back on….don’t get too complicated in your eating habits.”
I agree with Jim. Anti-nutrients are in most, if not all, whole foods. This does not mean they are bad, scary, or to be avoided. (In fact, avoiding the very foods that contain anti-nutrients will put your disease risk through the roof.) Anti-nutrients as they are popularly referred to, possibly poorly named, serve an important purpose in the overall chemistry of the plant and in its delivery of phytonutrients to your body.
Science actually knows very little about these anti-nutrients that some say rob your body of minerals. Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions teaches how to soak grains to neutralize phytates. (I discuss this issue and, for ease of digestion, teach it as an option in Step 9 of 12 Steps to Whole Foods, too.)
However, Reddy and Sathe published a book on phytates, the “anti-nutrient” in many grains. They explain evidence that phytates may not do what we think they do. They may not leach minerals from our blood and bones. They may, in fact, be helpful and important.
After all, the Bible calls wheat the “staff of life.” On a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense that grains aren’t good food. Many more Egyptians would have died in the time of Joseph and Pharoah, had they not had stores of wheat. It keeps for hundreds or thousands of years because of its hard shell, protecting the nutrition inside.
Wheat is vitamin- and mineral-rich. It’s easy to grow and inexpensive. It’s great food. (Too bad it’s been so hybridized and chemically sprayed. Many people react negatively to gluten now, likely because of hybrids. Buy organic spelt or kamut, ancient non-hybridized grains. Avoid any whole-grain products that are not organic. Many people now must avoid gluten entirely, but some whole grains do not contain any gluten protein. Avoid white flour always. “Wheat flour” on an ingredient list IS white flour. Only “whole wheat” is the grain with its bran and germ intact.)
These compounds are associated with protein and are ubiquitous in our cells and most foods. They are necessary and good, but in concentrated amounts can cause problems for people with gout and a few other childhood illnesses. Several researchers, including Choi, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have found that plant proteins do NOT increase gout risk, while the high-protein organs and flesh of animals, do increase gout symptoms. Moderately high purine-content plant foods include beans, lentils, asparagus, peas, oatmeal, and cauliflower.
It’s a non-issue unless you have a nutrition-related health problem that affects your purine metabolism. Especially for children and infants, problems that may warrant looking at purines may include autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, epilepsy, recurrent infections, inability to walk/talk, or anemia. In those cases, a doctor may limit purines to 150 mg or less. (Keep in mind that MOST cases of those illnesses have nothing to do with purines.) You could still eat a serving a day of one of those “moderate” foods and stay below that very low limit. (For other people, eating even ten servings, you would be fine and not at risk for gout.)
True, it’s in apple seeds. Cyanide is actually a trace element our body needs. What’s in apple seeds is a tiny amount, and your body breaks it down into another harmless compound in metabolism. I put apples, core and all, in my green smoothies. My dad has eaten apples whole, with the core, his whole life. (He likes to point that out, to whoever is within hearing range—“Hey look, I ate everything but the stem.” It seems to be proof of superior manliness?)
The cyanide used by Socrates’ murderer, and the Nazis, is a synthetic chemical combined with another element—hydrogen cyanide or sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide.
In fact, the “amygdalin” made of natural cyanide and sugar, found in apple seeds, is the B17 found in other pits that had people lining up by the thousands in Mexican cancer clinics in the 1980’s. My grandmother credited it, and a raw vegan “juicing” diet, with her cancer cure in that decade.
Jason Vale, diagnosed with a 100% terminal cancer when he was 18, credits it with his miraculous cure as well. He ate lots of apricot and peach pits, full of amygdalin, and when he survived and regained his health, he went on to sell apricot pits. He was sentenced to 64 months in prison for it! (The FDA will not approve apricot pits—Jason went to prison even after he stopped saying that they may cure cancer!)
I have done this subject to death. It’s another tempest in a teapot. Please show me the clinical data that healthy people need to limit oxalate-rich food. I’ve seen none. Only claims, passed around the internet. Hypothyroidism does not dictate that we avoid this very important, phenomenally nutritious class of vegetables and greens.
Let’s use some common sense. Let’s say a food has sustained human life for thousands of years, and dozens or even hundreds of studies show it to be dramatically cancer preventative. (I’m referring to broccoli, cabbage, and kale—the crucifers.) Let’s say we break down the many complex parts of the broccoli plant, and we find one that, when chemically isolated, is harmful–goitrogen.
We might do well to trust that the synergy in 100 different co-factors in that food are time-tested. How can you do a study to show that the complex interplay of factors in a powerful plant food yields long life and superior energy for humans? Scientists want to parse and isolate. If they find the heavy-hitter nutrient, they might be able to put it in a pill. Altered slightly, it might be patentable and worth $1 billion.
I’m not saying that natural, food-based supplements have no value. But nothing is going to come close to the synergistic, nearly incomprehensible effects of the plants they were derived from. The impact of the aloe vera plant on digestion, and cancer prevention, and burn healing….it’s nearly inestimable. You know this if you’ve ever cut a stalk off your aloe vera plant and applied it to a sunburn, which then doesn’t peel, and feels dramatically better, and is gone the next day. (Or if you put a stalk of your aloe vera in your green smoothie, watch what it does to your digestion that day, WOW.)
Whole plant foods are dramatically helpful for us to fuel a long, vibrant life. When you dig to the bottom of these “tempests in a teapot” controversies about anti-nutrients, you
If you’ve read this article and are now going to avoid whole grains, cruciferous vegetables, or apple seeds, you’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever OTHER food you eat instead of that whole plant food—animal flesh, or packaged foods—has far worse than an anti-nutrient or two. They have heat-damaged carcinogenic oils, no fiber, refined sugar, chemicals from solvents and preservatives and flavor enhancers and packaging and colorings. You’re simply far better off eating whole foods. Virtually always.invariably learn that research shows the “anti-nutrient” to be neutral or even helpful to normal, healthy humans.