Going against the grain

Grains and legumes have formed part of man’s diet for centuries. Many traditional cultural meals centre on agricultural products such as maize, wheat, rice, and beans.

These foods also comprise the staple diet of much of the developing world. In recent years grains and beans have received negative attention due to their phytic acid and lectin content. Some even go as far as to label these foods as toxic, and assert that they should be avoided at all costs. But are these claims warranted?

When phosphorus is stored in plant foods, it is called phytic acid. Once ingested, phytic acid can bind to other minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, and manganese to form a compound known as phytate. The human digestive system doesn’t contain the necessary enzymes to break down phytates, which means that a large portion of the minerals it binds to passes through the digestive system without being absorbed.

This may lead to mineral deficiencies if these foods are not properly prepared to minimise phytic acid content1. Whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds all contain phytic acid, with the most concentrated amounts occurring in whole grains and beans, which explains why you may feel bloated or experience stomach pain after eating un-soaked or underprepared beans and grains.

On the flip side, research is starting to uncover the numerous potential benefits of phytic acid consumption. For example, IP6 (inositol hexaphosphate – the form of phytic acid present in plant foods) shows promising potential to help prevent and treat cancer.

Another study conducted on diabetic rats found that phytic acid supplementation increased their HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which is important in the management of diabetes mellitus. While the results cannot be generalised to humans, the findings are an encouraging first step in uncovering the benefits of phytic acid. IP6 supplements have also increased in popularity in recent years, which begs the question – why buy a supplement when you can eat nutritious whole food?

Lectins – plant proteins responsible for binding sugars – are also present in many agricultural staple foods. Lectins attach to cell membranes, including the human intestinal mucosal cells responsible for nutrient absorption. This can cause damage to the small intestine and contribute to leaky gut – a condition characterised by increased permeability of the small intestine that allows toxins and foreign particles from foods to leach into the bloodstream. The body produces antibodies to fight these foreign particles, which leads to inflammation and can potentially trigger a range of autoimmune diseases. Coeliac disease (characterised by an immune response to gluten that attacks the small intestine lining) is one of the most common autoimmune diseases associated with gluten-containing grains.

Lectins are present in high quantities in most grains, grain-fed animal products (milk, cheese, fish, poultry and meat), corn, legumes (including peanuts, cacao beans and soy), nuts and seeds, as well as “nightshade” vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The good news is that, with proper preparation techniques, you can significantly reduce the amount of lectins present in each meal. Low-lectin foods include grass-fed dairy and meat, wild-caught seafood, coconuts, and the majority of fruits and vegetables.

The best methods for reducing phytic acid and lectins in foods are:

Soaking and/or sprouting: Certain legumes (for example lentils, chickpeas), grains (barley, wheat, spelt, rice), certain seeds and nuts can be soaked and sprouted. Some foods (such as red kidney beans) become toxic when sprouting , so do your homework before starting your sprouting adventure.

The length of soaking time depends on the food (anything between four and 24 hours). Generally beans and legumes need more time than nuts and grains. Simply cover the food with enough water to allow for expansion (usually 5 to 10cm above the food line). Soak for the required amount of time, then rinse thoroughly. If soaking for more than 12 hours, rinse and replace the water every 12 hours.

To produce sprouts, simply strain and rinse after soaking, and leave them in a shallow bowl on a counter where they will be exposed to air.

Add one to two tablespoons of water to the dish to keep them moist, but they should never be covered in water. They should sprout within a day or two, depending on the food.