Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Phytic Acid Myth

Our understanding of the natural world is changing very fast. Newer discoveries, aided by modern technology is helping us understand some of the many mysteries. One of the challenges that often pops up in this fast-changing scenario is accepting newer discoveries while letting go of past beliefs. Today’s post is about one such belief and we felt the need to write about it because we read some well-followed bloggers, who wrote about nutrition, suggesting to their readers to reduce grain, legume and seed consumption as they contain ‘Phytic acid’- informally termed as an ‘anti-nutrient'.

So does one need to fear Phytic acid? This is our take on it.

What is phytic acid? Phytic acid (or Phytate) is a major phosphorus storage compound of most seeds, legumes and cereal grains. It has a high affinity to phosphorus, and the seed stores the phosphorus reserve in phytic acid. When seed sprouts, the phytic acid degrades and releases the phosphorus, which nourishes the young plant. The structure of Phytic Acid is such, that it not only has a property to attract and lock in Phosphorus but also some other minerals, namely, iron, zinc and calcium. It was believed that because phytic acid locks these minerals, they are not available for us during digestion. For this reason, alone, it was termed as an ‘anti-nutrient’. Although no other nutrient is targeted, somehow the name stuck and became convenient to those who promote certain kinds of diets and food products.

So, do we need to shun Phytic acid? Contrary to those who call it a Pariah of the nutrition world - Science is actually asking us to smartly embrace Phytic acid and, we will tell you why and how.

1. Phytic acid is a powerful antioxidant: Phytic acid is shown to protect the liver from alcohol-related injury. It is also able to protect the DNA from free radicals, this protective action is enhanced in foods that are roasted (unfermented Chapati’s / flat breads). (1)

2. It reduces inflammation and its harmful effects: Phytic acid decreases the inflammatory cytokines IL-8  and IL-6, especially in the colon cells. (2)

3. Helps prevent certain types of cancers: Phytic acid was found to have anti-cancer properties against bone, prostate, ovarian, breast, liver, colorectal, leukaemia, sarcomas and skin cancers (3)

4. Helps repair DNA damage: Phytic acid can enter cells and aid the DNA repairs of breaks in its strands.  This has potential anti- cancer implications. (4)

5.  It can help prevent osteoporosis: Although it was implicated to inhibit calcium absorption, Phytate consumption has a protective effect against osteoporosis. Low phytate consumption, in fact, is a risk factor for osteoporosis.  Adequate consumption of phytate may play an important role in the prevention of bone mineral density loss in postmenopausal women (5)

6. Helps prevent Kidney stones: Phytic acid has shown to prevent calcification in the kidneys of rats, which suggest a potential for preventing kidney stones. Similar results were obtained in human cohort studies. (6)

7. Helps people suffering from Gout: By inhibiting the enzyme xanthine oxidase, phytic acid blocks the buildup of uric acid and can help prevent gout. (7)

These are just a few of the benefits of Phytic acid if included in our diet. Evidence from newer research showing more benefits like skin protection, gut protection and protection from heavy metals among others is also pouring in.

Now, the dilemma is how to enjoy the benefits of Phytic acid despite its inhibitory effects? The answer is simple - Eat a variety of food, encompassing a range of grains, pulses, vegetables and fruits.

How does this help? Firstly, contrary to what was believed, Phytic acid does not treat all iron and zinc equally. Absorption of iron and zinc from animal sources is not inhibited by phytic acid (8), so if your diet includes fish and meat - you do not have to bother.

What about Vegans then? If you are consuming fruits, vegetables and leaves along with the grains and seeds, then Vitamin C and other organic acids which are found in fruits and vegetables can enhance iron absorption and help reduce the effects of phytic acid. Vegetarian food is naturally high in Zinc and generally exceeds the RDAphytate may actually help control excess zinc absorption.

Finally, when it comes to calcium, Phytic acid has a lesser affinity to Calcium as compared to phosphorus and zinc. Moreover, proteins and vitamin D improves calcium absorption from Phytic acid. (9)

So what about Phosphorus? Phytic acid reduces phosphorus and other minerals absorption only when meals containing foods that have phytic acid are consumed, but does not have any effect on subsequent meals which do not contain foods having phytic acid. Not just that, phytic acid is easily degraded during cooking. Fermentation (like making idlis, Dosas and breads) degrades nearly 100 % of the phytic acid and makes phosphorus available and, so does sprouting. Also milling, boiling and chewing food degrades a large amount of phytates, all of which, release phosphorus, which our digestive system can then absorb (9).

So Phytic acid (or phytate) is a friend and not a foe. It is something we need to embrace and not fear. A varied diet is certainly nutritionally wholesome in more ways than one, and we need to embrace it. So the next time, if someone tells you to give up a certain kind of wholesome food because it contains phytic acid - it will help to realise that such advocates have a lot of catching up to do.

Meanwhile, Aarina, made a lovely gluten-free nine-grain millet bread. We made a sandwich with lots of fresh vegetables and salad leaves. A great way to start a day with a wonderful whole grain bread.


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24009840 , http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14738912 , http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21895422

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