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Antinutrients: What They Are & How to Cook Them Away

If you read literally anything about nutrition, you’re going to find the word nutrients. These are the important parts of food that are good for you.

But, did you know that there are also antinutrients? And that consuming them can affect your health and physical performance?

Some vegetables have high levels of antinutrients, or things that make them less appetizing to predators (including humans). But about a million years ago, we learned a neat little trick to destroy said antinutrients. Fire.

Yes, cooking is a great way to increase the nutritional content of vegetables. Put in another way, a 100% raw food diet is essentially mineral-deficient; due to a combination of antinutrients and the lack of micronutrient-dense foods like red meat, vegetarian diets are also relatively mineral deficient. 12

To get the most from your diet, you can certainly eat raw vegetables, but focus for the most part on cooking up anything that might contain antinutrients to ensure you’re digesting their benefits! Fruit has a negligible amount of antinutrients (mostly in the seeds), so you don’t have to worry about cooking it.

What Are Antinutrients and What Do They Do?

Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Below is a graph which shows a few of the most common types of anti-nutrients, where they are found, and the affect they have on our bodies:

 

Antinutrient Where it’s found What does it do
Phytate spinach, broccoli inhibits mineral absorption
Flavonoids tea, coffee, wine inhibits mineral absorption
Lectins beans, wheat inhibits digestive enzymes

 

In case you were wondering, anything that inhibits digestive enzymes such as beans and wheat will have two immediate effects: 1) reduced nutrient absorption; and 2) indigestion, bloating, and gas.

Are Antinutrients Bad For You?

It depends. If you avoid red meat or eat a plant-based rich in raw (uncooked) vegetables, then antinutrients could promote and/or exacerbate mineral deficiency. Alternatively, heavy exercise increases your body’s requirement for a variety of minerals 3; so if you’re a fitness buff then you’ll also want to minimize your exposure to antinutrients4. But if you eat a balanced diet, with meats and a variety of cooked veggies, then eating a raw spinach salad should not cause any issues.

How To Minimize The Effects of Antinutrients

Cook your veggies, especially those high in antinutrients like spinach and broccoli. Here’s how.

Spinach

Blanching: a tricky yet highly effective way to enhance mineral bioavailability.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add your raw spinach for about 3 minutes, then immediately pour it through a colander. While longer times such as 10 minutes have been shown to be very effective at minimizing antinutrients 5, the scientific outcome is somewhat at odds with the culinary one (spinach gets mushy when over boiled).

Sautéing: a less risky and possibly more tasty way to cook spinach.

Throw some butter and oil in a pan over medium-high heat (optional: add some minced garlic). Add raw spinach and stir it around for about 3 minutes, then remove to a serving dish. Squeezing on a bit of fresh lemon not only improves the flavor profile, but the added vitamin C further improves mineral absorption. 67

Broccoli

Steaming: the nutritionally superior way to cook broccoli 8.

Bring a half-full pot of water to a boil. Wrap your raw broccoli in foil so that it will float on the boiling water, add it to the pot for about 10 minutes, and voila, it’s ready to go.

Stir-frying: less effective at improving mineral bioavailability than steaming, but no need to make a water-proof foil boat. Throw some butter and oil into a frying pan over medium-high heat and add in raw broccoli. Stir it around for about 5 minutes, or until it starts to soften. Make sure not to cook it until it browns or becomes completely soft, as broccoli continues to cook after it’s been removed from heat – this doesn’t affect the nutritional content, but doesn’t do any favors for the texture.

These methods should take care of any antinutrient content in veggies, beans, or grains, and might also help you find new recipes to use with all of these foods! If you’re going to eat a ton of vegetables, who wouldn’t want to get the maximum benefit?

Antinutrients | Cooked Away

Antinutrients are found in a wide variety of foods such as beans, soy, and Brussels sprouts and the cooking methods above universally improve mineral bioavailability from these foods. The word antinutrient sounds intense, but it’s not going to poison you if you eat some raw broccoli as a snack. Raw foods are healthy, but ideally they shouldn’t comprise the majority of a well-balanced diet. Balance, as usual with diet & nutrition, is the key.

Show 8 References

  1. Zhang D, Hendricks DG, Mahoney AW. Bioavailability of total iron from meat, spinach (Spinacea oleracea L.) and meat-spinach mixtures by anaemic and non-anaemic rats. Br J Nutr. Mar 1989;61(2):331-343.
  2. Hotz C, Gibson RS. Traditional food-processing and preparation practices to enhance the bioavailability of micronutrients in plant-based diets. J Nutr. Apr 2007;137(4):1097-1100.
  3. Liang H, Li C, Yuan Q, Vriesekoop F. Application of high-speed countercurrent chromatography for the isolation of sulforaphane from broccoli seed meal. J Agric Food Chem. Sep 10 2008;56(17):7746-7749.
  4. Crouter SE, DellaValle DM, Haas JD. Relationship between physical activity, physical performance, and iron status in adult women. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. Aug 2012;37(4):697-705.
  5. Yadav SK, Sehgal S. Effect of domestic processing and cooking methods on total, hcl extractable iron and in vitro availability of iron in spinach and amaranth leaves. Nutr Health. 2002;16(2):113-120.
  6. Hallberg L, Brune M, Rossander L. Effect of ascorbic acid on iron absorption from different types of meals. Studies with ascorbic-acid-rich foods and synthetic ascorbic acid given in different amounts with different meals. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr. Apr 1986;40(2):97-113.
  7. Rutzke CJ, Glahn RP, Rutzke MA, et al. Bioavailability of iron from spinach using an in vitro/human Caco-2 cell bioassay model. Habitation (Elmsford). 2004;10(1):7-14.
  8. Yuan GF, Sun B, Yuan J, Wang QM. Effects of different cooking methods on health-promoting compounds of broccoli. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. Aug 2009;10(8):580-588.

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5 Comments

  • Raza says:

    What a great topic.

    I've been reading about anti-nutrients a lot, lectins in specific and they sound pretty bad. I'm curious, do you suggest avoiding beans, legumes, and wheat altogether? Do they not have some beneficial qualities that outweigh the bad (protein, fiber, etc)?

    But the reason I come back to this site so much is because you guys have such a balanced approach. For example, your article on the Paleo diet was really good because it gave an easy to understand explanation of the diet. I left it knowing the pros and cons of it and feel like I don't have to be "all or nothing".

    It's crazy because there's a lot of conflicting diet/nutrition advice: "clean eating", raw food diet, Paleo diet, gluten-free, vegan diet, etc.

    I keep coming back to you guys because you deliver solid information in a non-threatening way.

    Raza

    • Jeanette Rocha says:

      Just rinse your beans really well in a Colander then soak your beans with water with enough water to cover all the beans and soak them overnight for at least twelve hrs and then rinse your beans again before you cook them it makes the beans more digestible and gets rid of the phytic acid a nutritionist ones told me you shouldn't eat to many beans at one sitting just as many beans that fit in the palm of your hand.

  • Bill Lagakos says:

    I don’t suggest avoiding antinutrient-containing foods altogether; just don’t rely too heavily on the raw versions. Those foods (when cooked) are often relatively rich in micronutrients. And thanks, I’m glad you like the site.
    Best,
    Bill

  • Krassi says:

    Thanks Bill.
    With this article you took the scary part of “antinutrient” word off.
    But what about the tea and coffee? Are they safe, since they go through some kind of cooking/boiling?
    I used to drink many double espressos in a day. I reduced them to one double espresso in the morning, and another one about 2pm. Is it safe, or I must cut them off further?
    Thanks.

  • Bill Lagakos says:

    Hi Krassi, great question!
    Interestingly, the antinutrients in coffee and tea aren't neutralized by brewing. You don't need to cut your intake, just don't drink coffee with every meal or use it to wash down vitamin/mineral supplements.
    Hope this helps!
    -Bill
    http://www.builtlean.com/author/william-lagakos/

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