If you’re as into supplements as we are, you might have come across headlines warning you to avoid phytic acid like the plague. Often given the moniker the “anti-nutrient,” phytic acid has undeniably gotten a bad rap in the supplement world.
But is its reputation justified? Let’s take a deeper dive into the complex world of phytic acid, and set the record straight once and for all on this and the other “anti-nutrients” making the rounds online.
What is phytic acid?
Found in legumes and grains, phytic acid is pretty peculiar. It’s not a vitamin or a mineral, and it’s not an enzyme. Instead, it can be best described as a “substance” that is the state of phosphorus in storage mode. (Phosphorus aids with bone growth, digestion, brain function and a host of other body benefits.) Every plant-based food has some phytic acid, but foods like walnuts, rice bran and wheat bran have much higher concentrations.
Everything in your body has some sort of charge. Phytic acid sticks to nutrients with a positive charge, acting kind of like a magnet. This is starting to sound a bit too much like high-school science class, so we’ll cut to the chase. Essentially, phytic acid can cause these minerals to be eliminated from the body rather than absorbed like they’re supposed to be, if eaten at the same time.
The minerals we’re talking about are magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc—all considered essential to good health. Magnesium is one of the world’s most common minerals; your body needs it to maintain strong bones, among other things. Iron provides oxygen to your muscles and zinc boost your immune system function. In addition to its well-known bone benefits, we need calcium to ensure our blood clots, ourheartbeatss and our muscles contract.
Zinc, magnesium, calcium and iron are crucial for our health, and phytic acid can prevent them from being absorbed (in some cases). You get the picture. But is phytic acid really the “anti-nutrient,” and is there something to be concerned about?
Does phytic acid lead to mineral deficiency?
There has been some research into the topic, so don’t write the seriousness of it off just yet. Research has shown that some cultures with more phytic acid-rich diets (think: lots of beans) are more like to experience zinc deficiencies. But the warning signs pretty much stop there.
And keep in mind that for its “anti-nutrient” qualities to kick in, it must be eaten around the same time as foods rich in minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Eating these things a few hours apart shouldn’t result in any issues.
Should you avoid phytic acid?
In a word? No. Phytic acid can hinder the absorption of some minerals, but it also brings a host of health benefits. It has some antioxidant properties, and can prevent kidney stones and lower blood sugar for precisely the same reason why people are wary of it: its ability to reduce levels of certain minerals. (Although there’s some talk about phytic acid’s ability to ward off cancer, this hasn’t been proven through research.)
Most doctors and nutritionists agree that phytic acid shouldn’t be an issue if you practice a healthy diet rich in vitamins and nutrients.
Are there other “anti-nutrients?”
Kale has glucosinolates, which can impact your thyroid. Soybeans contain oxalates, which can hinder the body’s ability to absorb plant amino acids. Plants also contain lignans, saponins and a number of other substances now dubbed “anti-nutrients.”
But as is the story with phytic acid, you’d have to get these substances in very high amounts for them to cause major issues. And like phytic acid, they all contain health benefits as well. Glucosinolates, for instance, give kale and broccoli their cancer-fighting powers. Lignans could have both bone and blood pressure benefits. Saponins have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and play a role in fighting cancer.
What’s the bottom line on phytic acid and most of the other substances that have gotten a bad rap for their role in mineral absorption? Like many things on our plate, they have both pros and cons, and interact with different things in different ways. If you maintain a healthy diet, you shouldn’t be too worried about phytic acid. But if you eat a ton of phytic acid-rich foods and aren’t getting much zinc, iron and magnesium in your diet, you can consider supplements to get your balance back on track. Just remember that too much iron and zinc can be dangerous, too—likely more so than a little phytic acid.