How to prepare grains for maximum digestion and nutrient absorption and why it matters to your health

Grains require specific preparation to increase digestibility and make use of their nutrients.

Grains, legumes, nuts and seeds have about eight types of natural anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors are two of them which prevent us from breaking down and making use of the nutrients in the food, causing nutritional deficiencies and problems digesting the grains. Complex proteins in gluten in rye, spelt and wheat are also very difficult to digest–many say impossible to completely digest by the human digestive tract. Grains can be prepared to increase digestibility and nutrient absorption.

What is Phytic Acid?

Phytic acid is the main storage form of phosphorus. It is not only present in grains, but also beans, seeds and nuts, and to a lesser extent in tubers and some fruits and vegetables (Nagel 29). Phytic acid is highest in seeds and bran, the outer hull of grains (think oat bran or wheat bran).

Phytic acid, as bio-unavailable phosphorus, binds to other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, in grains in the small intestine and blocks the body from absorbing those minerals.

Thus, if one eats a diet high in grains without proper preparation to reduce most of the phytic acid instead of eating other mineral-rich foods where the minerals are more bio-available, they can become deficient in such minerals and Vitamin D. Minerals are needed for many body functions, help to fight inflammation, and build healthy bones. This study showed that eating a diet high in wheat without proper preparation can result in rickets and osteoporosis (both caused by mineral and Vitamin D deficiency). A researcher Edward Mellanby studied how grains with and without phytic acid affected dog health. He found that consumption of high-phytate grains interefere with bone growth and Vitamin D metabolism.

Eating much grains and legumes without proper preparation is cited as one of the reasons early humans developed nutritional deficiencies after adopting agriculture (Kresser 68), though I don’t think a causal relationship could be proven.

Enzyme inhibitors

Enzyme inhibitors neutralize the enzymes in our own digestive tract so that we can’t break down our food, including enzymes that break down protein and enzymes that break down starch into sugar. What’s wrong with that? Incompletely digested food feeds pathogens in our gut, creating an imbalance in gut flora and damages the lining of our small intestine, causing leaky gut.

Soaking grains in hot water with acidic ingredient for 8-24 hours reduces phytic acid

There are three methods you can use to reduce the anti-nutrients before cooking them: soaking them in water, sprouting and lacto-fermentation. This article will outline soaking and cooking for the most popular grains. Soaking in the acidic medium reduces phytic acid and activates phytase, the enzyme that co-exists with phytic acid in plant foods and neutralizes the phytic acid (Nigel 31).

In general, a combination of acidic soaking for considerable time and then cooking will reduce a significant portion of phytate in grains and legumes. –Ramiel Nigel

White rice, wild rice or barley–1 cup dry to serve 3-4

Rice is low in phytic acid because the bran and germ containing the phytic acid has been removed. It needs the least time for soaking. You can also skip the soaking and cook rice in meat stock or bone broth, as the gelatin breaks down phytic acid.

  1. Bring 2 cups water to a simmer. In the same pot or in a mason jar with the water, add 1 cup dry rice and 2 T neutralizer, i.e. apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, whey or yogurt or other cultured dairy.
  2. Soak in the pot or jar, covered, 7-24 hours. The heat from the water opens the pore of the grains.
  3. At this point you can change the water, as some believe this removes the enzyme inhibitors. Or you can cook the rice in the soaking water. Add 1/2 t sea salt. Bring to a boil and cook on very low, from 20 minutes to as long as 1 ½ hours.
  4. Add 1-2 T grassfed butter.

Rolled oats, kamut, spelt and rye–1 cup dry to serve 4

Unfortunately, soaking the oats found in stores today does not reduce phytic acid levels much. This is because oats at the store are very low in phytase, the enzyme that co-exists with phytic acid in plant foods and neutralizes the phytic acid. According to Ramiel Nigel, even soaking oats in an acidic medium for five days will not reduce phytic acid much (Nigel 37).  The below method using typical store-bought rolled oats may not reduce phytic acid enough to facilitate proper digestion. Thus, oatmeal possibly should not be eaten daily, even using the below method.

To reduce phytic acid enough, you would need to buy oats that have not been heated at high temperatures in the processing, and soak them in an acidic medium for 24 hours at 100° F before cooking. Sounds like too much work? It is.

  1. Bring to a simmer 1.5 cups water. In the same pot or in a mason jar, add the water to the 1 cup grains and 2 T neutralizer, such as apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, whey or yogurt or other cultured dairy. Whey and yogurt have a neutral taste. The vinegar and lemon juice will affect the taste of the grains, especially oats. Mix.
  2. Soak 7-24 hours.
  3. Bring to a boil an additional 1 cup water. Add to the soaked oats in the cooking pot with 1/2 t sea salt. Bring to a boil and cook on very low 5-10 minutes.
  4. Add 1-2 T grassfed butter or cream.

Quinoa–1 cup dry to serve 3-4

Quinoa is the only grain that must be rinsed to remove the saponins (looks like soap suds). The quinoa you get at the store may already be rinsed, but I would rinse it yourself the first time to make sure, as saponins can irritate the digestive tract.

The below method should reduce phytic acid content by 82 to 88%.

  1. Rinse the quinoa three times in a bowl of water until the “soap suds” no longer appear. Drain.
  2. Bring to a simmer 3 cups water. Add to the rinsed quinoa in the cooking pot or mason jar with 1 T neutralizer, i.e. apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, whey or yogurt or other cultured dairy. Mix.
  3. Cover and soak for 12-24 hours.
  4. Rinse and drain quinoa.
  5. To cooking pot add quinoa, 2 cups just simmered water and 1/2 t sea salt. Bring to a boil and cook on very low for 45 minutes.
  6. Add 1-2 t grassfed butter or cream.

It’s best to eat grains with grassfed butter or cream. These healthy fats add vitamins A, D and K2, which, besides being super important for health, neutralize any remaining phytic acid. Butter and cream help one to absorb the minerals and water-soluble vitamins in meat, vegetables and grains. Also butter, like any healthy fat, slows the absorption of carbohydrates-turned-glucose into the blood stream, thereby regulating blood sugar levels.


Sources:

Nigel, Ramiel. “Living with phytic acid: preparing grains, nuts, nseeds and beans for maximum nutrition.” Wise Traditions, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2010, p. 28-39.

Kresser, Chris. The Paleo Cure. New York: Little Brown & Company, 2013.

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