Antinutrients might be robbing your body of vitamins and minerals. Some doctors like Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and an expert on Paleolithic lifestyles, believe humans are NOT designed to eat grains, and doing so may actually be damaging to your gut.
“There’s no human requirement for grains. That’s the problem with the USDA recommendations. They think we’re hardwired as a species to eat grains. You can get by just fine and meet every single nutrient requirement that humans have without eating grains. And grains are absolutely poor sources of vitamins and minerals compared to fruits and vegetables and meat and fish.”
On the other hand, if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, grains and legumes are important foods for protein. So, we have to find a way to lessen the antinutirents and make these foods bioavailable.
“Antinutrients are compounds in food that can interfere with the absorption of some nutrients,” says Reed Mangels, retired adjunct associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These plant compounds that reduce the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients are not a major concern for most people, but may become a problem when you eat more grains and legumes.
Antinutrients aren’t always “bad.” Under some circumstances, antinutrients like phytate and tannins may have some beneficial health effects as well.
The most widely studied antinutrients include:
- Phytate (phytic acid): Mainly found in seeds, grains and legumes, phytate reduces the absorption of minerals from a meal. These include iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. “Of all the anti nutrients, I think about phytates the most because they’re in a lot of foundational foods for vegetarians,” says Mangels.
- Tannins: A class of antioxidant polyphenols that can impair the digestion of various nutrients.
- Lectins: Lectins are a key mechanism through which plants protect themselves against being eaten, and are found in highest concentrations in their seed form. This makes sense, considering that seeds are the plants’ “babies” and whose survival ensures the continuation of their species. Lectins are found in whole grains, beans, seed and all foods plants. If not thoroughly cooked, lectins can damage cells lining the digestive tract and may prevent nutrients from being absorbed. Some lectins may be harmful in high amounts. We are mostly exposed to lectins from grains, beans, dairy products and nightshade plants, such as potato, tomato, and chili peppers. However, bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) has a prominent role to play in lectin-induced adverse effects, due to the fact that it is a relatively new form of wheat, and contains wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). This is a particularly resilient & problematic lectin, considering it is not eliminated through sprouting & is actually found in higher concentrations in whole wheat.
- Protease inhibitors: Widely distributed among plants, especially in seeds, grains and legumes. They interfere with protein digestion by inhibiting digestive enzymes.
- Calcium oxalate: The primary form of calcium in many vegetables, such as spinach. The calcium bound to oxalate is poorly absorbed. In other words, spinach has calcium but you don’t absorb most of it because oxalate ties it up. Calcium oxalate is reduced by up to 87% by boiling green leafy vegetables. Steaming and baking are not as effective.
Beans and other legumes are often soaked in water overnight to improve their nutritional value. Most of the antinutrients in these foods are found in the skin. Since many antinutrients are water-soluble, they simply dissolve when foods are soaked. In legumes, soaking has been found to decrease phytate, protease inhibitors, lectins, tannins and calcium oxalate. Not only is soaking useful for legumes, leafy vegetables can also be soaked to reduce some of their calcium oxalate.
A blog I posted in June, 2019, Soaking Seeds and Nuts, describes in detail the steps for soaking. Soaking is typically used in combination with other methods, such as sprouting, fermenting and cooking.
Sprouting is a period in the life cycle of plants when they start emerging from the seed. This natural process is also known as germination. This process increases the availability of nutrients in seeds, grains and legumes. Sprouting takes a few days, and may be initiated by a few simple steps:
- Begin by rinsing the seeds to remove all debris, dirt and soil.
- Soak the seeds for 2-12 hours in cool water. The soaking time depends on the type of seed.
NUT/SEED SOAKING TIME DEHYDRATING TEMP. DEHYDRATING TIME Almonds 7 hours or overnight 95-100°F 12-24 hours Brazil 6 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Cashews 4-6 hours 200-225°F (oven) 12-24 hours Hazelnuts 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Macadamia 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Peanuts 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Pecans 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Pine nuts 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Pumpkin Seeds 7 hours 95-100°F 12 hours Sunflower seeds 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours Walnuts 7 hours 95-100°F 12-24 hours
- Rinse them thoroughly in water.
- Drain as much water as possible and place the seeds in a sprouting vessel, also called a sprouter. Make sure to place it out of direct sunlight.
- Repeat rinsing and draining 2-4 times. This should be done regularly, or once every 8-12 hours.
During sprouting, changes take place within the seed that lead to the degradation of antinutrients such as phytate and protease inhibitors. Sprouting has been shown to reduce phytate by 37-81% in various types of grains and legumes. There also seems to be a slight decrease in lectins and protease inhibitors during sprouting.
Fermentation is an ancient method originally used to preserve food. In various grains and legumes, fermentation effectively degrades phytate and lectins. “Fermented foods are essential to introduce, as they provide probiotic microbes in the best possible form … fermented foods will carry probiotic microbes all away down to the end of the digestive system. Fermentation predigests the food, making it easy for our digestive systems to handle, that is why fermented foods are easily digested by people with damaged gut. Fermentation releases nutrients from the food, making them more bio-available for the body: for example sauerkraut contains 20 times more bio-available vitamin C than fresh cabbage,” says Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride a physician in the United Kingdom who treats children and adults with autism, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems.
A good example of fermented food is sourdough bread. Making of sourdough effectively degrades antinutrients in the grains, leading to increased availability of nutrients. Sourdough fermentation is more effective at reducing antinutrients in grains than yeast fermentation in typical bread.
High heat, especially when boiling, can degrade antinutrients like lectins, tannins and protease inhibitors.
One study showed that boiling pigeon peas for 80 minutes reduced protease inhibitors by 70%, lectin by 79% and tannin by 69%. Phytate is heat-resistant and not as easily degraded with boiling.
The cooking time required depends on the type of antinutrient, food plant and the cooking method. Generally, a longer cooking time results in greater reductions of antinutrients.
Combining many methods can reduce antinutrients substantially, sometimes even completely. As an example, soaking, sprouting and lactic acid fermentation decreased the phytate in quinoa by 98%. Similarly, sprouting and lactic acid fermentation of corn and sorghum degraded phytate almost completely. Soaking and boiling pigeon peas led to a 98-100% reduction in lectins, tannins and protease inhibitors.
Below is an overview of the main antinutrients and effective ways to eliminate them.
- Phytate (phytic acid): Soaking, sprouting, fermentation.
- Lectins: Soaking, boiling, heating, fermentation.
- Tannins: Soaking, boiling.
- Protease inhibitors: Soaking, sprouting, boiling.
- Calcium oxalate: Soaking, boiling.
Although antinutrients can significantly reduce the nutritional value of many plant foods, they can be degraded with a few simple methods such as heating, boiling, soaking, sprouting and fermenting.
By combining different methods, many antinutrients can be degraded almost completely.
Pine nuts have been enjoyed since ancient times. Roman soldiers ate them and they are mentioned by Greek authors as early as 300 BC. Nutritionally speaking, pine nuts contain many of the same healthy nutrients as other nuts, including healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, but pine nuts are not actually nuts at all.
Pine nuts are the seeds of pine trees. They are found between the scales of pine cones, but while all pine trees yield pine nuts, only about 20 species have pine nuts large enough to be worth eating. It takes 18 months for most pine nuts to mature, although some species can take as long as three years. Ten days before the green cone starts to open, the nuts are ready for harvesting.
Pine nuts, also called pignolia or pignoli nuts, are one of the main ingredients in traditional pesto. These nuts come with a high price tag due to their slow growth and labor-intensive harvesting process. According to a Huffington Post article:
“The cones are dried in a burlap bag in the sun for 20 days, to speed up the process of drying and opening. The cones are then smashed (as a way to quickly release the seeds) and the seeds are separated by hand from the cone fragments.
Pine nuts have a second shell, which also has to be removed before eating … The shell varies from very thick and challenging to remove to thinner and therefore easier to handle.”
It will take between 15 to 25 years for pine trees to begin producing pine nuts, and about three times that time for the trees to reach ideal production. Most of the time, these nuts are harvested by hand, which contributes to the price.
Pine nuts are small, elongated, ivory-colored nuts that are about half an inch long. When eaten raw, they have a soft texture and a buttery, savory, and sweet flavor. You can lightly toast them to add some crunch and bring out their flavor.
Pine nuts are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and in the U.S. they’ve grown into a $100 million market (although about 80 percent of U.S. pine nuts are imported).
Eating pine nuts especially improves vitamins E and K dietary intake. A cup of pine nuts contains 91% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K, and 63% of the daily value of vitamin E. Vitamin K is used to prevent blood clotting and promotes the calcification of bones rather than blood vessels. Vitamin E helps the body produce red blood cells, which are needed for oxygen transportation. Pine nuts and cashews are the only two tree nuts with any significant amount of vitamin K.
Pine nuts are also very high in manganese and zinc. A cup of pine nuts contains 594% of the recommended daily value of manganese and 58% of the recommended intake of zinc. Zinc is valued for its immune-boosting and wound-healing abilities, while manganese is essential for strengthening connective tissue and maintaining the body’s hormonal balance.
Pine nut consumption also improves magnesium and iron levels. A cup of pine nuts contains 41% of the recommended daily intake of iron, and 85% of your recommended daily amount of magnesium. Magnesium is essential for weight loss, lowering blood pressure, helping to prevent cancer, reducing fatigue, and stabilizing mood. Iron also reduces fatigue and improves muscle and brain function.
There are many additional reasons to eat pine nuts aside from the flavor:
1. Suppress your appetite: If you’re trying to lose weight, eating pine nuts may help. Research showed that fatty acids derived from pine nuts lead to the release of high amounts of cholecystokinin (CCK), an appetite-suppressing hormone. Women who consumed three grams of the fatty acid pinolenic acid prior to breakfast slowed the absorption of food in their gut and decreased their food intake by 37 percent.
2. Boost energy: Pine nuts contain nutrients that help boost energy, including monounsaturated fat, protein and iron. Pine nuts are also a good source of magnesium, low levels of which can lead to fatigue. Many Americans are deficient in magnesium.
3. Reduce heart disease risk: Pine nuts contain a synergistic blend of compounds known to support heart health. This includes monounsaturated fat, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin K and manganese. Research suggests that the pinolenic acid in pine nuts supports healthy cholesterol levels and may have LDL-lowering properties by enhancing the liver’s LDL uptake.
4. Anti-aging antioxidants: Pine nuts contain a wealth of antioxidants, including vitamins A, B, C, D and E, and lutein. Antioxidants are crucial to your health as they are believed to help control how fast you age by combating free radicals, which are at the heart of age related deterioration. Antioxidants are nature’s way of defending your cells against attack by free-radicals.
5. Vision health: Pine nuts contain lutein, a carotenoid that may help you ward off eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Your macula is a small area just two millimeters wide, located in the back of your eye, in the middle portion of your retina. For reasons scientists have yet to pinpoint, parts of your retina and macula may become diseased. As AMD progresses, tiny, fragile blood vessels that leak blood and fluid begin to develop in your retina, causing further damage.
However, there is pigment in your macula that seems to act as a blue-light filter to protect your macular region against oxidation by light. In addition, this macular pigment can scavenge free radicals. Lutein is one of the predominant pigments in this area, and numerous studies have found that consuming foods rich in these nutrients can significantly reduce your risk of AMD (and non-Hodgkin lymphoma).
There are several reported cases of altered taste perception (cacogeusia or “pine mouth”) following eating pine nuts. It appears few days after eating the nuts and may persist for up to a week. However, “pine mouth” is self-limited condition and resolves on its own. While rare, pine nut syndrome can last a few weeks. It may be from one particular species of pine nut from China called Pinus armandii. It’s not harmful.
Pine nut allergy may occur in some sensitive individuals. The reaction symptoms may range from simple skin itching (hives) to severe form of anaphylactic manifestations, including breathing difficulty, pain abdomen, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cross-reactions may also occur with some other nuts and fruits, especially of Anacardiaceae family members such as mango, cashew nuts, pistachio, etc. Persons with known allergic reactions to these nuts may, therefore, need to be careful eating pine nuts.
How to Buy
With a high oil content, pine nuts quickly turn rancid if they’re not stored properly. If you buy them from a bulk provider, use your nose and avoid any nuts that smell rancid. Purchase them from a source with a high product turnover to ensure optimum freshness. Packaged pine nuts can be found in both the nut section of the supermarket as well as the gourmet Italian foods aisle. You can assume the nuts are all of a similar quality, but you may find those in the gourmet aisle will be sold in smaller quantities and are more expensive.
How to Store
Pine nuts should be kept in an airtight container, like a glass jar with a lid, in the refrigerator for one to two months. If you wish to extend the shelf-life, place pine nuts in a silicone bag (I like Stasher bags) in the freezer for three to six months. Once pine nuts turn rancid, they will give off an unpleasant odor and often develop a bitter taste. You may also notice that mold has appeared.
How to Cook
Use pine nuts in any recipe that calls for nuts. Add pine nuts to baked goods, granola, pasta dishes, salads, smoothie bowls, and anything else that could use extra flavor, crunchy texture, and a nutrition boost. You can also blend them into soups, sauces, and dips for a creamy texture that’s dairy-free and vegan-friendly.
Many recipes instruct you to toast the pine nuts before you use them, which brings out a deeper nutty flavor. To do this, heat a dry skillet over medium-low heat, then add the pine nuts and shake the pan frequently. Pine nuts can go from perfectly golden-brown to burned in the blink of an eye, and burned pine nuts taste unpleasantly bitter. Keep a close watch on the pan as you shake it, and remove the nuts from the pan as soon as they turn golden-brown, as they may burn if you leave them in the pan (even if you turn off the heat).
Vegan Spinach and Mushroom Pasta with Pine Nuts
Natasha Bull/ Photo credit: Salt & Lavender
- 1 (8 ounce/227g) package Chickapea pasta (or any gluten-free pasta)
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small shallot chopped finely
- 7 ounces (I used crimini) sliced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 dash Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/4 cup vegetable broth
- 1.5 cups (packed) baby spinach
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Fresh chopped parsley to taste (optional)
- Nutritional yeast to taste (optional)
Boil a large, salted pot of water for the pasta. Cook al dente according to package directions.
Add your pine nuts to a skillet over medium-high heat. Toast them for a few minutes, stirring often, and watching them closely so they don’t burn. Remove pine nuts and set aside once they’re toasted.
Add the olive oil to your skillet, along with the shallot and mushrooms. Sauté for 4-5 minutes or until the water has released from the mushrooms.
Add the garlic, Dijon mustard, Italian seasoning, lemon juice, and veggie broth to the pan. Let it simmer for a minute or two.
Stir in the spinach and let it wilt.
Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Toss. Give it a taste and season with salt & pepper as needed.
Serve the pasta with the pine nuts sprinkled on top, along with the parsley and nutritional yeast if using. It’s also delicious with an extra drizzle of olive oil.