Antinutrients are plant-based compounds that can block the absorption of essential nutrients from the digestive system, thereby decreasing the nutritive value of the foods. They are found in a wide variety of foods – from vegetables and leafy greens to beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds – and are generally produced as a form of protection against bacterial infections or insects, animals, and other predators.
Although these compounds can block the body's absorption of nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc, they aren't necessarily bad for you. Yes, they can be a concern for people whose diets largely depend on grains and legumes. But if you eat a wide array of foods as part of a balanced diet, then antinutrients shouldn’t pose any risks to you. In fact, some antinutrients can be good for you if taken in moderation.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common categories of antinutrients. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, some of the major ones are as follows.
5 Major Antinutrients
Found in the Brassicaceae family of plants like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, rapeseed, mustard, and horseradish, these compounds can intervene with thyroid hormone production in our body by disrupting the gland's use of iodine. This can then keep you at a greater risk of developing goiters, which usually develop as a result of iodine deficiency or inflammation of the thyroid gland. Because of this, people with thyroid disease or iodine deficiency should avoid having foods with glucosinolates regularly or in great amounts.
Health experts say that the glucosinolate levels in cruciferous vegetables like brussels sprouts and broccoli are pretty low and shouldn’t really be harmful to you. Also, the reduced iodine absorption in such foods can be counterbalanced by cooking them iodized salt.
They are a family of proteins that are found in all food plants, particularly in seeds, raw legumes, and whole grains. Lectins can be harmful if taken in great amounts or if eaten raw. Studies have indicated that lectins can interfere with the absorption of nutrients like calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. However, if prepared or cooked properly, lectin-rich foods can be managed quite easily. For example, research has found that soaking legumes in water overnight to improve their nutritional value also decreases their antinutrient content.
According to health experts, these chemicals don't usually pose a danger to most of us. In fact, according to a study published in the Oncotarget journal, lectins can be utilized to fight tumor growth and cancer, though more research would be needed to verify those claims.
Tannins are a class of antioxidants that are found in a wide range of plant foods and drinks, including tea, coffee, chocolate, grapes, berries, and legumes. Think of that sharp taste you experience while drinking wine or eating unripe fruits. Tannins are responsible for that.
Some studies have suggested that tannins can cause issues with iron absorption when taken in isolation. However, research published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition found that these antioxidants have the ability to boost your immune system as well as reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Health professionals say that people with iron deficiency should consider cutting back on tea around meals. That being said, since most people don’t go around drinking 20 cups of tea or coffee day, tannins are generally not a big health concern.
These naturally occurring molecules are found in green leafy vegetables, particularly members of the spinach family, along with tea. Research says that oxalates can interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium. When we eat foods with oxalate, it can bind with calcium while passing through the intestines and hence block it from absorption. Moreover, these molecules can crystalize in tissues when taken in excess, and hence consuming oxalate-containing foods too frequently can lead to kidney stones. So, if you’re prone to calcium oxalate stones or are at risk of osteoporosis (a condition in which bones become weak and brittle), you should limit your intake of foods rich in oxalates.
Having said that, most health experts agree that oxalate-rich foods such as broccoli, kidney beans, and salmon, have several benefits and should be part of your diet. Just make sure, you have them in moderation. If you are at risk of developing kidney stones, add a high-calcium food to your meal with oxalate-containing foods to neutralize any possible negative effects of oxalate.
Phytate (phytic acid):
Phytates, or phytic acid, is a substance found in several plant-based foods such as seeds, legumes, whole grains, and some nuts. Much like oxalates, phytates too tend to bind with calcium, along with magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc as well, and hence prevent their absorption in the body. Diets rich in phytates can hence lead to zinc deficiency. However, phytates are also powerful antioxidants, and including them in your diet can have several health benefits like lowering your cholesterol, slowing digestion, and preventing any abrupt spikes in serum glucose levels. So eating foods rich in phytates as part of a plant-based diet has many advantages and it counters any negative impact they can have.
Should you avoid antinutrients?
Even though antinutrients reduce the absorption of essential nutrients in your body, they aren’t particularly harmful. Since they are mostly found in foods having substantial health benefits like grains, vegetables, and beans, their gains outbalance the concerns of antinutrients. Thus, they aren’t really a major concern for an average person with a healthy diet.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they are completely harmless. According to a 2020 Nutrients study, when eaten in large amounts or when consumed alone, antinutrients can have a negative effect on the body’s reserves or function in some way. Also, some people may be more susceptible to the effects of antinutrients for various reasons. Again, more research is required to know for certain.
“These compounds are rarely ingested in their isolated format as we know from how these foods are traditionally consumed. Plant-based diets which contain these compounds also contain thousands of other compounds in the food matrix, many of which counteract the potential effects of the ‘anti-nutrients,” wrote the authors of the study.
Moreover, most antinutrients are reduced during the cooking process and you can further neutralize their negative effects by using a combination of methods like heating, soaking, cooking, sprouting, or boiling. Most of us are likely following these habits anyway while preparing our foods without realizing the underlying reason. For example, legumes, such as lentils, are often soaked overnight before cooking. We also tend to heat or boil raw beans and raw grains - foods containing lectins - before consuming them and thus remove their antinutrients.
Simply put, we need not be afraid of antinutrients. When consumed in small amounts, many antinutrients offer various health benefits.
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