Raw nuts, and even more so raw seeds, have notable levels of phytic acid, a form of bound phosphorous, which serves as a physiological protectant and antioxidant for plants. While phytic acid is useful to safeguard the seeds until germination, when eaten by humans it binds to minerals in the gastrointestinal tract, causing irritation and contributing to the potential for nutrient deficiencies.
Some animals naturally produce adequate amounts of the enzyme phytase to breakdown this anti-nutrient, however humans do not, causing phytate-heavy diets to be hard to digest. Raw nuts also contain a significant amount of enzyme inhibitors, which act to prevent the nut or seed from sprouting prematurely in nature. These enzyme inhibitors can also bind up minerals and and cause digestive strain for humans. Most statements extolling the health benefits of raw nuts and seeds are inaccurate as they fail to take into account the fact that many of the nutrients they contain cannot be properly assimilated in their raw form.
The phytates and enzyme inhibitors that make nuts and seeds so hard to digest can be easily neutralized by soaking in salt water and low temperature dehydrating. The combination of minerals and heat works to break down irritating compounds, while preserving the beneficial fats and proteins. Many traditional cultures intuitively practiced these preparation methods using seawater and the sun. The tools and techniques of modern science have enabled us to see in an even more detailed way just how profoundly soaking increases the bioavailability of important nutrients (notably B vitamins) and activates helpful enzymes that increase nutrient absorption. Unfortunately, this tedious process is cumbersome and costly for large-scale manufacturers, and has been lost in the packaged convenience foods available today.
Soaking nuts and seeds is not difficult. Luckily the process of soaking is essentially the same for whatever type of nut or seed you chose to prepare, although the timing varies slightly to accommodate for differences in fat composition, size, texture, etc. Traditional soaked nuts and seeds, are made by following these basic steps:
- Measure out 4 cups of raw, unsalted, organic nuts/seeds into a medium sized bowl
- Cover with filtered water so that nuts are submerged
- Add 1-2 teaspoons sea salt
- Allow to stand covered on the counter for about 7 hours, or overnight
- Rinse nuts to remove salt residue and spread out in single layer on a rack to dehydrate
- Dry at a low temperature (generally no higher than 150°F) in dehydrator or oven for 12-24 hours or until nuts are slightly crispy.
It is important to dry out nuts and seeds at a low temperature in order to preserve the greatest amount of natural enzymes and fragile unsaturated fatty acids possible. 150° F is the maximum heat you would want to apply, although temperatures around 110° F are truly best. Dehydrators are ideal for the job. I have an Excalibur Food Dehydrator, five tray, that I have used for years and never had a problem with it. Keep in mind that most ovens come preset with a low temperature of 175-200° F, so you may have to go online for the oven manual and figure out how to down-regulate the base temperature. A stand-alone oven thermometer may be helpful for monitoring.
Allow nuts or seeds to completely cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or the refrigerator. Cooler temperatures help preserve their nutrition and prevent rancidity of their natural fats.
These steps are adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Most nuts will be better tasting as well as easier to digest with soaking and dehydrating. Some seeds cannot stand up to soaking like flax seeds which turn into a mucilaginous goo in water, and brazil nuts don’t always soak well due to their high fat content. Peanuts can also be soaked, however I didn’t include them as they should be consumed sparingly due to inflammatory and allergenic potential.
The practice of sprouting takes things even a step past soaking. By completing several cycles of soaking, rinsing, draining and air exposure over time, certain seeds will enter a state of germination in which physical sprouts actually appear. This extent of germination is highly beneficial as it not only reduces enzyme inhibitors, but increases the healthy enzyme content six fold. Sprouting is not possible with all varieties of nuts however, ands occurs far more readily in seeds, legumes and grains. Raw and non-irradiated pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are all good candidates for sprouting.
A robust and healthy digestive system can tolerate a certain amount of phytic acid and a varied diet will compensate for the actions of enzyme inhibitors without a problem. However, if you consume many high-phytate foods or use a lot of nut flours or legumes in cooking, then soaking will prove very useful.
Roasted nuts are not the same as soaked nuts. Although their smoky flavor makes them seem appealing, commercially roasted nuts are flash-fried in cheap, rancid oils, while dry roasted nuts are exposed to exceedingly high temperatures that denature the nutrients and cause the breakdown of fats, increasing free radical capacity.
As with most fresh food items, organic nuts are preferable to minimize pesticide risk and to support sustainable agricultural. Yet, unfortunately, less than 1% of U.S. tree nut farmland is certified organic.
- Endosulfan, a pesticide that is banned in most countries but still legal in the U.S. and India, is used on non-organic cashew trees. It is highly toxic to humans and animals, and washes into waterways where it harms aquatic life. Endosulfan is a hazard to farm workers as well as people who live near farms where it is used. According to Grinning Planet, it affects the central nervous system, and causes damage to kidneys, liver and testes.
- Organic cashews are grown without the use of any poisonous chemicals, including endosulfan. Non-organic pistachios may be treated with phosmet, a Class II pesticide. Studies at Cornell University indicate chronic toxicity in rats from long term, small doses of phosmet. A two-year mouse study showed increased liver tumors and carcinoma, and the pesticide is considered a category C carcinogen. Organic pistachios are not exposed to phosmet or any other synthetic chemicals.
- Peanut plants are legumes, with seeds that develop underground. Because they have direct soil contact, pesticides and chemicals can be very concentrated in peanuts. Peanuts grown in the southeastern U.S. are exposed to humid conditions that create a greater risk of insect, mold and fungal infection. The poisonous aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mold that affects peanuts, transmits easily in humid environments. Look for Valencia cultivars of peanuts. These cultivars were bred for New Mexico’s dry growing conditions, and they produce premium organic peanuts.
There is inconsistent published data on the amount of pesticide residue present in the nuts after being hulled. Because the nuts are shelled and have a small surface area, some experts believe that they are at least partially protected from the dangers of pesticides and not of dire concern. However, others argue that nuts and seeds are apt to absorb pesticides readily due to their high oil content, and that the amount of pesticides used in nut growing has been consistently on the rise in recent years. Add to that the fact that non-organic nuts are often treated with fumigants (gases to kill bugs) after they are picked, it makes me want to seek out pesticide-free nuts and seeds.
Many co-ops have sprouted walnuts and almonds in their bulk section. You can also go online and order from: Better Than Roasted Nut Butters or Wildly Organic. Go Raw has packaged presoaked and dehydrated seeds and snacks. You can find Go Raw in most co-ops and Whole Foods.
Pumpkin seeds are a super food with nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein and zinc. They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants.
Magnesium is essential for a healthy heart and 1/4 of a cup of pumpkin seeds provides nearly half the recommended daily requirement. Magnesium is important for a variety of physiological functions, including the creation of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the energy molecules of your body), the synthesis of RNA and DNA, the pumping of your heart, proper bone and tooth formation, relaxation of your blood vessels, and proper bowel function. Magnesium has been shown to benefit your blood pressure and help prevent sudden cardiac arrest, heart attack, and stroke, yet an estimated 80 percent of Americans are deficient in this important mineral.
Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of zinc (one ounce contains more than 2 mg of this beneficial mineral). Zinc is important to your body in many ways, including immunity, cell growth and division, sleep, mood, your senses of taste and smell, eye and skin health, insulin regulation, and male sexual function.
Many people are deficient in zinc due to mineral-depleted soils, drug effects, plant-based diets, and diets high in grain. This deficiency is associated with increased colds and flu, chronic fatigue, depression, acne, low birth weight babies, learning problems and poor school performance in children.
Raw nuts and seeds, including pumpkin seeds, are one of the best sources of plant-based omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA).
Research suggests that both pumpkin seed oil and pumpkin seeds may be beneficial in supporting prostate health.
Animal studies suggest that pumpkin seeds may help improve insulin regulation and help prevent diabetic complications by decreasing oxidative stress.
Pumpkin seed oil is rich in natural phytoestrogens and studies suggest it may lead to a significant increase in good “HDL” cholesterol along with decreases in blood pressure, hot flashes, headaches, joint pains and other menopausal symptoms in postmenopausal women.
Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) that your body converts into serotonin, which in turn is converted into melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” Eating pumpkin seeds a few hours before bed, along with a carbohydrate like a small piece of fruit, may be especially beneficial for providing your body the tryptophan needed for your melatonin and serotonin production to help promote a restful night’s sleep.
Pumpkin seed oil has been found to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects. One animal study even found it worked as well as the anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin in treating arthritis, but without the side effects.
Pumpkin seeds, rich in healthy fats, antioxidants and fibers, may provide benefits for heart and liver health, particularly when mixed with flax seeds.
How to Buy
I like the Go Raw Sprouted Organic Pumpkin Seeds that can be found in most co-ops. You can also order them from Vitacost (a great place for vitamins and bulk items – delivers to your door).
In order to preserve the healthy fats present in the seeds, pumpkin seeds should be eaten raw. If you choose to purchase seeds from a bulk bin, make sure they smell fresh – not musty, spoiled or stale, which could indicate rancidity or the presence of fungal mycotoxins. Organic pumpkin seeds are preferred, as they will not be contaminated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals.
I have written the blog this week on why nuts and seeds should be soak before consuming. They have anti-nutrients like phytic acid that can make the important nutrients discussed above less bioavailable. So if you plan on consuming seeds or nuts on a regular basis, please soak or sprout them.
How to Store
Cool, dry, and in a glass container.
How to Cook
If you prefer to eat pumpkin seeds roasted, do so yourself so you can control the roasting temperature and time. Raw pumpkin seeds can be roasted on a low heat setting in your oven (no more than 170 F or 75 degrees Celsius), sprinkled with Himalayan or other seasalt, for about 15-20 minutes.
Use crushed pumpkin seeds as a crust for fish.
Toasted sprinkled over soup or salad or oatmeal.
Make pumpkin seed butter.
Add to granola.
Make pesto with herbs and garlic in a food processor.
Grind to make flour and substitute for other plant-based flours.
Horseradish-Pumpkin Seed Pesto
Makes 2/3 cup
Makes 2/3 cup
1/2 cup organic pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons grated peeled horseradish or 1 drained prepared horseradish
2 cups cilantro leaves with tender stems
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
¼ cup (or more) olive oil
Try this on toast, tossed with pasta, or dolloped on a baked potato. The pesto will keep in the fridge covered for five days.
Finely grind pumpkin seeds and horseradish in a food processor.
Add cilantro and lime juice; pulse until cilantro is finely chopped.
With motor running, stream in ¼ cup oil; process just to combine.
Add more oil if pesto is too thick; season with salt.