I feel a little like Jeff Probst sometimes: “Next time on..Kitchen Stewardship!”
I hope no one feels like I’m stringing you along with all these promises of soaking grain research and then more posts telling you other things with “research coming later”.
Disclosure: Research posts intimidate me a little.
They’re hard to pull together, especially when my blogging time is at the end of the day and I’m distracted by checking comments, email, etc. I need to spend some time during the day on a weekend putting focused effort into this stuff!
That said, I’m going to share some of what I have so far with you today. “Some” because no blog post should be as long as it could get if I write it all, and “so far” because I’m still hoping to hear from a real live scientist who can answer some of my questions. It’s time to send a follow-up email!
For today, I’m going to try to start with the basics: What are phytates and phytic acid?
If you’re familiar at all with the concept of soaking grains put forth by Nourishing Traditions, you’ll know that the prime evildoer in the battle is called phytates, often used synonymously with phytic acid.
Phytates and phytic acid are not the same thing. They are related and work together, but one cannot speak of them interchangeably.
Within the bran layer of a grain/seed, we find phosphorus bound up and unavailable, along with calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Phytic acid is billed as both an antioxidant and an anti-nutrient, clouding the issue from the get-go. It’s technically called a hexaphosphoinositol and is a powerful chelator, which means it binds with other minerals and takes them out of your system. This could be positive, toxin-reducing, and cancer-fighting, or negative, prohibiting your system from absorbing minerals.
That is, if phytic acid can get free in the first place.
Phytates are the bond holding phytic acid. They are officially the “salt of the phytic acid,” which can be broken in a number of ways.
- in the gut with stomach acid
- via germination
- under the enzyme phytase
Unfortunately, this is all assuming one would want to break down their phytates. Doing so releases free phytic acid into the system, which is looking for something to fulfill it. That something could be your iron reserve.
During germination, the phytate is “hydrolyzed”, which is a fancy way of saying broken into compounds by reacting with water. This is much like when salt is dissolved into water. Phosphorus, magnesium, iron and calcium are made available for the development of seedlings (and you, too!). Like salt, however, which can return to it solid state if the water is evaporated, phytates can potentially bond back to the minerals because its electron needs are not fulfilled.
Stomach acid is a pH of 1, whereas the vinegar, lemon juice, etc. recommended by Sally Fallon and crew ranges from 3.5-4.5, about 1000-10,000 times weaker than the digestive juices. If an acid at that pH could affect the phytate bond, the grain would have to be cracked for it to happen, as the bran itself is too tough to digest and too tough for mild acids.
Germination only begins when the seed is intact or cracked, not ground. It’s possible that more nutrients are made available through germination, and that’s what soaking purports to do: begin the growing process of a seed.
Two procedural questions quickly arise from the two paragraphs above:
- If the grain has to be cracked for acidulated liquid to potentially affect it, what does soaking whole rice, barley, or dry beans do?
- If germination is the key, how can one soak flour, which is way beyond the ability to germinate?
UPDATE: Part of the answers lies in understanding the goal of the acid in the water. The enzyme phytase is the key to understanding a lot of what happens when grains are soaked in an acidic medium. You can read about how phytase works to learn more.
Questions one and two are sort of diametrically opposed, yet answer each other. The goal in soaking whole seeds is often to begin germination, which doesn’t need an acid medium, and the goal of soaking flour is to activate the phytase, not germinate the seed. There are still more details to be nailed down, but I’m not ruling out that soaking does something and has a genuinely possible goal.
Other question that need to be addressed:
- Is phytic acid good or bad?
- Do we want to release phytic acid in the first place?
- If phytic acid is released into the soak water, does it need to be rinsed off before cooking so that the phytic acid doesn’t bond back up with the minerals you’re trying to release?
That’s all for today. As much as I’d like to pretend I’m a real researcher in uncharted territory, let’s keep it real: I’m just a mom with a computer and a yen for knowledge. I’m just going to be conversational about all this until I feel like I can say something more definitive (or run out of research to share). You’ll know when you’ve reached the last “grains information post” when it’s titled “To Soak or Not to Soak”…
- Personal emails with Dr. Teri O’Brien, a PhD biologist who researches plants.
- Phytate in foods and significance for humans: Food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis
Ulrich Schlemmer, Wenche Frølich, Rafel M. Prieto and Felix Grases: Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2009, 53, S330 –S375.
- Phytates and the inhibitory effect of bran on iron absorption in man.
Hallberg L, Rossander L, Skånberg AB. Am J Clin Nutr. 1987 May;45(5):988-96.