What is phytic acid? Phosphorus is needed to support the growth of a seed when it begins to sprout. Most of the phosphorus of plant foods is stored in the outer husk of grains, beans and legumes, nuts, and seeds in the form of phytic acid. Phytic acid protects the life force (the endosperm) of a seed from germinating until it is planted in soil and watered. Phytic acid, then, like biological transmutation, is a rather miraculous gift of nature to support our survival: Phytic acid allows us to store grains and legumes for years and be assured that the inner life force of a seed food will be preserved. Then, whenever a seed is planted, all that is required are soil and water to break down the phytic acid to allow the endosperm, fed by the starch stored in the seed, to unfold into new plant life.
Phytate as a nutrient and enzyme inhibitor. Phytic acid (phytate) blocks the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc as well as the digestive enzymes pepsin and amylase. Because some phytate is water soluble, we usually try to diminish its effects by soaking beans and grains before cooking. Soaking grains and legumes is especially appropriate for modern vegetarians and people in Third World countries where an over-reliance upon phytate-rich grains, beans and seeds can lead to serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Curbing phytic acid for people who rely upon beans, legumes, and grains for protein can prevent serious mineral deficiencies that include folate (birth defects); iodine (neurological development and growth); iron (brain development and child mortality); vitamin A (immune function); zinc (growth, healing); and vitamin B-12 (neurological development).
Phytate as an antioxidant, a moderator of metabolic stress, and a chelator of heavy metals. Phytic acid’s positive role is not just as the protector of plant life. While phytic acid presents a problem for mineral absorption and can lead to deficiency, it also performs several positive functions in the body—working as an antioxidant to offset free-radical damage; lowering the glycemic index of carbohydrates; and binding toxic metals such as uranium and nickel.
Using phytic acid to personal advantage. An understanding of phytic acid and its tradeoffs means we can use or diminish it to fit our own personal health conditions. If the digestion and absorption of food generally and minerals specifically is an issue, then you will want to soak grains and beans before cooking.
However, if you are worried about blood sugar issues, you might decide not to soak grains and beans in recognition of the inverse relationship between phytic acid and the glycemic index (GI) of foods—lowering phytic acid raises the GI of carbohydrates. The same non-soaking strategy could be used if you are concerned about heavy metal toxicity.
Interestingly, using probiotics is a way to consume foods high in phytic acid while still benefiting from much of a food’s mineral nutrition. This is because probiotics are rich in lactobacilli, a major source of phytase. Phytase is the enzyme that releases phosphate from phytic acid, thereby altering the structure of micronutrients to enhance mineral absorption.
In contrast to conditions in the less-developed world, most Americans have access to a wide variety of high-quality organic fruits, vegetables, and animal products that can supply rich mineral nutrition. Today, for many people, more pressing considerations than mineral deficiency may be metabolic stress, insulin resistance, and metal toxicity. Modern science, by outlining the tradeoffs and choices surrounding phytic acid, enables us to use or to defuse phytic acid in ways that are in keeping with our own unique personal profile to support our health and vitality.
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