The Health Benefits of Phytates & Phytic Acid
What are these and why do we care?
Phytates are the primary form of phosphate storage in most plants, especially in seeds, but also in beans, legumes and grains. Subsequently, they become a major source of phosphorus for us as consumers of plants.
Generally speaking, non-ruminants do not break phytates down well, because we lack the enzyme ‘phytase’ that specifically targets them for breakdown. When we consume them, we digest them down to other other inositol phosphates termed IP1 to IP6, and while all technically different, they are essentially metabolites of the phytic acid we have consumed. Vitamin D appears to aid in digestion, the more vitamin D available the better the absorption (vitamin D, calcium and phosphate regulation in the body all occur in concert).
Historically, phytates have received a bad reputation. Although, their existence has been known for decades, they were not embraced due to their tendency to bind minerals in the gut before they are absorbed, slowing absorption and also influencing the activity of other digestive enzymes. The perception was generally speaking, the more any given mineral we absorb, the better, so if phytates inhibit absorption they must be bad, right?
One thing phytates are known to do is regulate iron absorption. In folks who are at risk of iron deficiency or who are actively iron deficient, this can become problematic. However, in a western diet high in red meat, we typically consume too much iron and this has been linked to increased risk of heart attack, stroke and certain cancers. So phytic acid may actually reduce our risk of those diseases by inhibiting absorption of minerals.
In many ways, phytic acid acts like a vitamin, and since it has phosphorous attached, you could say mineral too. In fact, some nutritionists would argue it should be considered an essential vitamin. So what can or does phytic acid do for us? What does the evidence say.
Perhaps the most promising and impressive potential of phytates are in it’s anti-cancer and anti-tumor functions. Although the research is very early, the potential is promising. Phytates have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing activities; all of which appear to help them target cancer cells. It may block the proliferation of new blood vessels that allow cancer cells to spread. Amazingly, it may even ‘rehabilitate’ cancer cells, causing them to act normal again. Early evidence is promising, especially for breast, kidney, prostate and colon cancers.
Early research suggests that higher levels of phytic acid reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis, a disease process that increases your risk of heart attacks. It also decreases the likelihood that platelets will stick to the hardened arteries.
Phytates are partially excreted in urine and may bind minerals during the process, and early evidence suggests it is helping in preventing recurrent kidney stones.
Unsurprisingly, it influences pancreas activity and may help blunt the bump in blood sugar we get after a meal. More research is needed to help determine the implications of this finding, but it will likely help with a sensation of feeling full longer and potentially help with diabetes management and prevention.
This is a disease where your body does not excrete iron appropriately and you eventually suffer from your body dumping iron all over your body. It is best managed with the help of a doctor who specializes in the disease but phytates may very well help reduce absorption of iron in patients who already have too much.
One study found that phytate consumption had a protective effect against osteoporosis, suggesting low phytate levels may be a contributing factor to the disease process.
What about mineral binding?
Well this is a real thing. Phytates clearly bind iron, calcium, zinc and manganese in the gut and can affect your bodies absorption. However if you eat a balanced diet without excessive amounts of phytic acid, then these effects are likely to be of minimal consequence.
The area where phytates may have the biggest effect on inhibited mineral absorption is in low income countries where mineral fortification is uncommon place and nutritional deficiencies are common. There are some in the nutrition world arguing or gathering evidence to argue for de-phytinization in these areas of the world to prevent the development or exacerbation of mineral deficiencies.
The other population of concern here is individuals with iron deficiency who are also at risk of phytate-induced exacerbation of their illness.
If you are concerned about loss of mineral absorption from phytic acid, you can consider the following to potentially blunt the impact:
- Cook/ heat
- Soak or ferment
- Add vitamin C or vinegar
That said, the argument that certain plant foods are unhealthy because of their phytic acid content seems unfounded. Although they bind minerals, there is little evidence suggesting this is clinically significant in most people and the evidence is starting to mount that they have benefits.
Although highest in seeds, whole grains and beans, the content is widely varied. Some good examples include:
- Brazil nuts
- Rice bran
- Wheat bran
- Sesame seeds
So what’s the deal, do you need to worry?
The short answer is probably not. If you consume a healthy, balanced meal, the evidence suggests you will not develop any mineral deficiencies from your phytate consumption and may actually have some benefits.
The argument by some that certain plant foods are unhealthy because of their phytic acid concentration should also be taken with a grain of salt. Although more evidence and research is needed to make broad recommendations and draw firm conclusions, in individuals without any major vitamin or mineral deficiencies, phytic acid in moderation appears to be beneficial.
Phytic Acid Supplement Options: http://amzn.to/2pUkvAD
Grases, F., & Costa-Bauza, A. (1999). Phytate (IP6) is a powerful agent for preventing calcifications in biological fluids: Usefulness in renal lithiasis treatment. Anticancer Research, 19(5A), 3717-3722.
Jozefiak, D., Ptak, A., & Kaczmarek, S. (2010). Multi-carbohydrase and phytase supplementation improves growth performance and liver insulin receptor sensitivity in broiler chickens fed diets containing full-fat rapeseed. Poultry Science, 89(9), 1939-1946. doi:10.3382/ps.2010-00694
Ma, G., Li, Y., & Jin, Y. (2006). Phytate intake and molar ratios of phytate to zinc, iron and calcium in the diets of people in China. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition Eur J Clin Nutr, 61(3), 368-374. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602513
Gibson, R. S., Bailey, K. B., & Gibbs, M. (2010). A Review of Phytate, Iron, Zinc, and Calcium Concentrations in Plant-Based Complementary Foods Used in Low-Income Countries and Implications for Bioavailability. Food Nutr Bull Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 31(2 suppl2). doi:10.1177/15648265100312s206
Urbano, G., López-Jurado, M., & Aranda, P. (2000). The role of phytic acid in legumes: Antinutrient or beneficial function? Journal of Physiology and Biochemistry J Physiol Biochem, 56(3), 283-294. doi:10.1007/bf03179796