If I had a nickel for every time I wished I had a science lab at my house, and the knowledge to put it to good use…
The trouble with yearning to know more about how (and if) some of the traditional foods practices work is that there aren’t a lot of companies who profit from whole foods, therefore there’s not a trail of dollars to “encourage” research. I have yet to find a peer-reviewed, valid study testing the amount of phytates in grains before and after soaking as a home cook would do it. I’m not going to wash my bran 3 times in acid and then make burger buns with it like one study did.
Even more importantly, it’s difficult to find studies of the phytates’ effects in humans after consumption. Do they really inhibit absorption of minerals? (Probably.) But can we treat them, with the soaking process as described, to truly make a difference?
I understand that Rami Nagel, author of Curing Tooth Decay and this controversial article does some independent research, but I want more.
I was pretty excited when my mom, who reads my blog, saw my wish to have a pH test in my kitchen, unearthed some old pH strips for me. I spent a few days sticking them into food to see what I could find!
Disclaimer: I’m the farthest thing from a scientist, so take these results with a grain of salt as “interesting” but not ground breaking, please.
What’s the Deal with Soaking Grains and Why Does pH Matter?
The reason I even cared about the pH of my food is that the theory of soaking grains generally rests on phytase, the enzyme that, when activated, breaks apart the phytate from the phytic acid and the good minerals in the grain. Phytase is activated under moist conditions with a slightly acidic pH of 4-4.5. Therefore, I wanted to know if all the various soaking options put forth by Nourishing Traditions actually had a pH in that range.
A quick primer: In case it’s been ages since high school chemistry, pH is a scale of 1-14. Seven is the center and shows the pH of plain water, which is neither acidic nor basic. (An acid and a base are opposites.) A very strong acid like stomach acid or hydrochloric acid falls way down in the 1-2 range, and a baking soda solution tested about a 10 with my strips.
I tested baking soda water as a control to see if the strips seemed to be working right, along with water, which shouldn’t change the color of the strip at all. pH paper works by reacting with the solution into which it is immersed and changing color depending on the pH.
My Kitchen Lab Results
Regular household white vinegar is supposed to be about a pH of 4-4.5, and when I tested undiluted vinegar it made the strips redish orange, which translates to “2-4.” Deep red is the lowest pH and highest acidity, a 2.0. Orange is categorized “strongly acid” with a pH of 4.0. Even with this scientific equipment, it was a bit of a judgment call about precisely where on the scale a given color result landed.
This is a photo of the strips after dipping into straight vinegar (bottom) and the requisite 1 Tbs. of vinegar in a cup of water that I would use to “soak” a recipe. The top color matched the orange for “4.0” nearly exactly, which is encouraging as it’s just what we’re looking for!
It seems to make sense that a diluted acid would be weaker than straight. When I tested my yogurt whey, however, I found some surprises:
This photo shows three tests, from left to right: whey + water (1 Tbs/cup), straight whey, and straight yogurt. The color didn’t change much from the dry strip, which you can see at the top of each piece. I’d put it squarely in “yellow” or “6.0,” a rather far cry from 4-4.5. Here is another photo, turned sideways, with plain water at the top as a control (they whey + water is now at the bottom):
It looks to me like whey + water and plain water are awfully similar. I figured the shade of the whey and the yogurt as a 6.0, with the yogurt perhaps having a slightly darker hue (which means slightly more acidic), but still I’m guessing it’s a 5.0, maximum. A different day I tested brand new, fresh yogurt, and I might have given it an “orange” but quite a weak one. I also tested 1/4 cup whey with 3/4 cups water, which would make a pretty wickedly sour soaked oatmeal already, and it remained at a 6.0. Using just a Tablespoon of whey or yogurt per cup doesn’t seem to provide the appropriate pH for phytase to be activated!
Testing my sourdough starter on a whim also resulted in a shade only slightly darker than water, even though it’s well known that sourdough reduces the phytic acid content of grains.
No Yogurt to Soak??
Although I was disappointed that yogurt didn’t test at a 4.5 pH, I still have a hunch about soaking that has little to do with activating phytase. My mom has noticed that soaking oats in whey seems to work better than soaking in lemon juice, digestively. I’ve always thought there might be some lacto-fermentation going on, which would be a different, although similarly beneficial, process than phytase and phytic acid breakdown. Just a hunch.
Lactic acid is what makes sourdough work its magic. Rami Nagel has also recently stated that he’s found whey to be the most effective soaking agent. Hmmm…!
A New Option
I am just learning about water ionizers, and apparently they can change the pH of the water. So if soaking is really all about pH, then the new technological way to do a traditional soak could be to simply make your water pH 4.5 with the ionizer. Now I haven’t tried this myself because I don’t have one of the machines, but it’s a fascinating concept, no?
Katie the Scientist?
Hardly. I must close with the reminder that I have no idea what I’m doing, and these are hardly conclusive results. It was just something fun to do in the kitchen, and it gives me food for thought. I think we can say one or more of the following is true:
- My pH strips were old and created an invalid test.
- My knowledge was lacking and created an invalid test.
- A diluted vinegar solution possibly activates phytase and initiates the breakdown of the phytic acid/phytate bond.
- Whey, yogurt, and diluted whey might not touch phytase at all…but they might initiate other beneficial processes, like lacto-fermentation.
- Katie wishes she had access to lots of money and scientists willing to design and carry out a study with real people and traditional food preparation techniques.
One way to get around all this soaking stuff and try some flour that has been made healthier for already is to buy sprouted flour, and I have two advertisers this month who make it: JoshEWEa’s Garden and Shiloh Farms. I’m honored to work with them both, and thank you, dear readers, for visiting and supporting the KS sponsors.
Catch up on this soaking grains exploration information if you want to learn more!