6 Antinutrients Found in Food: Should You Avoid Them?

Are Antinutrients Real?

Antinutrients certainly sound like a problem. Nutrients are good for us, so why would anyone eat their opposite?

Yet these plant chemicals — yes, they are real — are widely misunderstood. While they can cause problems under certain circumstances, they can also be normal parts of a healthy diet, at least in moderate amounts.

“In the grand scheme of things to worry about when it comes to food, antinutrients are not a major concern for most people,” says Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian in Toronto. “If you eat a balanced diet and a variety of foods, the effects of antinutrients are not a big deal.”

Here’s a closer look at what antinutrients are, where they come from, and how they affect us.

What are Antinutrients?

As the name suggests, antinutrients can block the body’s absorption of nutrients. They represent a small group of phytochemicals produced by a wide variety of plants, often as defenses against bacterial infections or insect herbivores.

But while antinutrients have the ability to block nutrient absorption, experts generally agree that they pose little danger — at least based on the way most people eat the plants they produce.

You can get more antinutrients than you expected if your diet revolves around a select few foods. A balanced diet can help you avoid that.

“As long as we maintain a balance and a variety, those antinutrient claims aren’t going to be a concern for the most part, because we’re not going to get a huge amount at some point,” said Jennifer Hanes, a registered dietitian based in Lewisville, Texas.

Anti-Antinutrient Attitudes

Humans have dealt with antinutrients for thousands of years by soaking, cooking, sprouting, or otherwise modifying certain plants before eating them.

Heating and cooking seem to be key to neutralizing the negative effects of certain antinutrients. And some antinutrients may even have therapeutic properties on top of the well-known health benefits that vegetables in general provide.

Recent concerns about antinutrients seem to have stemmed largely from fad diets, Hanes says, raising unfounded doubts about the health value of some vegetables.

“They count on you not to read anything other than what they tell you,” she says.

That’s not to say antinutrients are harmless. When eaten in larger amounts as part of a diet, or when consumed alone, they can negatively affect the way the body functions, according to a 2020 nutrients study.

Some people, such as those with certain health conditions, may be more susceptible to these negative effects for a variety of reasons, the researchers wrote. But those conditions aren’t typical, they noted, and they come with important caveats:

“These compounds are rarely ingested in their isolated form, as we know from how these foods are traditionally consumed,” the researchers wrote. That is, the meals you make usually contain more than one food item.

“Plant diets containing these compounds also contain thousands of other compounds in the food matrix, many of which counteract the potential effects of the ‘antinutrients’,” she added.

In other words, compounds in your food can block the antinutrients that block the nutrients. (Still confused?)

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Main Antinutrient Groups

Here are some of the major antinutrient groups found in beans, grains, and vegetables — and what you need to know about each.

Glucosinolates

Produced by plants in the Brassicaceae family, glucosinolates are a large group of phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, mustard and horseradish.

While the precise function of glucosinolates in plants remains unclear, the pungent taste of isothiocyanates — small molecules formed from glucosinolate precursors — may provide protection against bacteria or leaf-eating insects such as caterpillars.

Glucosinolates are goitrogens, or naturally occurring substances that can disrupt the thyroid and make it harder for the gland to make thyroid hormones.

However, goitrogen concentration varies widely by plant species, and many popular foods, including broccoli and Brussels sprouts, contain glucosinolate levels that are too low to cause a physiological effect and may even provide benefits.

“In addition to beneficial glucosinolates, cruciferous vegetables provide an abundance of other health-promoting phytochemicals, fiber and essential vitamins and minerals,” the researchers said. nutrients study.

However, the researchers note that glucosinolates may pose a risk for people with thyroid disease or for those at higher risk for thyroid disease.

But that’s only if they consume plants with a higher goiter (think Russian kale and collard greens) every day for a long time.

Even then, the reduced iodine absorption – preventing iodine absorption is one way goitrogens interfere with thyroid function – can be compensated for by cooking with iodized salt.

lectins

Lectins are a broad family of proteins found in many different organisms, including animals and plants.

Hundreds of plant lectins exist in different varieties, but they are more concentrated in certain types, namely raw legumes and whole grains.

Lectins can interfere with the absorption of several nutrients, including calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

Lectin-rich foods can also cause food poisoning if not prepared properly, but that risk can be managed relatively easily by consuming them in their whole and cooked form.

While some people have good reasons for limiting lectins, these chemicals pose virtually no danger to most of us, Hanes says.

“There are certain people who don’t tolerate some of the lectins as well as other people, and so they may have some GI [gastrointestinal] problems as a result,” she says. “But one person who doesn’t tolerate them doesn’t make them bad for everyone.”

oxalates

Many plants produce oxalic acid, or oxalates, for purposes such as defense, calcium regulation and heavy metal detoxification.

Oxalates, found in both green leafy vegetables and tea, can bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed into the body.

Calcium oxalate is a major component of kidney stones, and oxalates in certain foods, such as spinach, are sometimes considered a risk factor.

That may be true, at least for some people. But the relationship between oxalate-rich foods and kidney stones is less straightforward than scientists once thought.

By the nutrients study, “oxalate-containing foods contain a range of protective, beneficial compounds, which may outweigh the potential negative effects of oxalate.”

As with other antinutrients, it’s all about moderation.

“I wouldn’t have four pounds of spinach every day, but I wouldn’t avoid anything that has oxalates in it,” Hanes says.

phytates

Phytates, or phytic acid, are widespread in the plant kingdom and serve as a storage system for phosphate, an energy source and an antioxidant for germinating seeds.

They are found in many seeds, legumes, whole grains and some nuts and can hinder the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.

Phytates are also powerful antioxidants and eating them as part of a plant-based diet is more beneficial and tends to exceed the impact it can have on mineral absorption.

phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are plant compounds with a structural similarity to estradiol, the primary female sex hormone.

This similarity allows them to bind to human estrogen receptors, thus having some degree of influence on estrogenic activity, leading to inflated fears about foods containing them.

“I think the ones I see the most reviled are the phytoestrogens in soy,” Hanes says. “People get scared because there’s estrogen. Men tend to get scared because, you know, estrogen. But there’s a lot of good stuff about it.”

So let’s get things straight: Phytoestrogens don’t raise your estrogen levels the way many people think they do.

And if eaten in moderation, they won’t increase your risk of breast cancer — another fear you may have seen floating around the internet. Some studies even show that soy may actually lower the risk of breast cancer.

Tannins

Tannins can be found in a range of plant foods and drinks, from apples and berries to tea and coffee.

Some studies have found that tannins can interfere with iron absorption when taken individually, but other studies examining whole diets have found that nutrients study.

Cutting back on tea around meals may be worth it for someone with serious iron absorption issues, Hanes says, but tannins are rarely a concern based on the way most people consume tea or coffee.

“If I drank 20 cups of tea a day, I’d probably have problems,” she says. “But no matter how most people drink tea, you’re not going to get to that level.”

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