Nuts and seeds can make a wonderful, nutrition-packed, healthy snack to take with you on-the-go, or to munch on to satisfy those mid-afternoon hunger pangs, however, what a lot of us don’t realise is that, like grains and legumes, they can also contain substances (known as antinutrients), that interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Through the simple process of soaking grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, it improves their nutrition AND reduces their antinutrient levels, making them more beneficial to the body (sprouting or fermenting takes it to a whole new level!!).
Enzyme inhibitors in nuts, seeds, grains & legumes
These plant foods (especially raw seeds) contain naturally occurring antinutrients like phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Phytic acid is a natural biological adaption in the plant that helps protect the nut or seed until ideal growing conditions occur and germination can begin.
Enzyme inhibitors are there to prevent the seed from sprouting too early, however, they have been found to impact humans by binding to nutrients in the body, which can contribute to nutrient deficiencies and digestive issues.
What’s more, nuts and seeds store phosphorus as phytic acid, where it becomes a phytate once it binds to a mineral. While in the digestive tract, this process can stop nutrients from being absorbed and reduce the body’s ability to digest these foods. So, something to keep in mind, while nuts and seeds may be considered good sources of protein and nutrients, it doesn’t necessarily mean your body can absorb these nutrients. All plants contain some level of phytic acid (again, it’s part of their passive defence system which they’ve adapted over the millennia to protect themselves and ensure the species will continue), but grains, legumes, nuts and seeds generally contain the highest amounts (hence why we tend to soak these foods).
Another note to keep in mind; phytic acid may not always be entirely bad, it depends on the dosage you’re ingesting as to whether it poses health problems or not. Diets high in processed grains and low in healthy fats and minerals may increase the chances of nutrient absorption issues, making it more important to reduce phytic acid concentrations in food.
Interesting to note; research is discovering that in certain levels, phytic acid may actually bring about a protective effect in the body, while also having a role in cells as a secondary messenger. However, in order for this beneficial effect to occur, it appears that it must be balanced by certain fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients, AND the body must be able to absorb these nutrients.
This is why reducing phytic acid levels in grains, seeds, etc. can be helpful, and make the nutrients in these foods more available for absorption by the body. This step is especially important for young children, as they’re still developing the enzymes that help to break down these plant foods.
The importance of soaking, sprouting or fermenting nuts, seeds, grains and legumes
While the digestive process can neutralise some phytic acid, it’s important to soak, sprout or ferment foods that are particularly high in this antinutrient to reduce levels even further (and prevent an overload on the body). You can dehydrate them afterwards to bring them back to their crunchy, tasty selves again.
When you soak these plant foods in a simple mineral solution (just using water mixed with a little salt) and dehydrate afterwards at a low-temperature, this process helps to break down much of the phytic acid found naturally in these grains, and also makes the nutrients in nuts more readily available for the body to absorb.
Traditionally, many cultures used to soak, sprout or ferment nuts, seeds, grains and legumes before they were able to consume them as they understood that it would enhance the body’s ability of absorbing the nutrients within these foods and to help deactivate antinutrients like phytates, lectins, tannins, gluten, and other harmful compounds that bind to minerals in the body and prevent them from being absorbed. However, this step is hardly ever taken with large scale commercial production since it is very time consuming. Yet, it is a simple and inexpensive process to do at home and can greatly increase the nutrient content of the seeds, nuts, grains and legumes you consume.
How to soak, sprout or ferment nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes
What we’re essentially doing is mimicking nature’s natural germination process of turning a seed into a plant. The method is pretty much exactly the same for nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes -only the time required to soak or sprout changes (see table below).
How to soak
There are two parts to soaking nuts, seeds, grains and legumes: warm filtered water and salt.
The warm filtered water helps to increase the bioavailability of many nutrients, especially b-vitamins, while neutralising many of the enzyme inhibitors. The salt helps activate enzymes that deactivate the enzyme inhibitors found in these foods.
Note; when soaking grains or legumes, a more acidic substance is often used, such as yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, whey, milk kefir or coconut kefir (all dairy mediums need to be cultured). Baking soda is added for legumes.
Since nuts and seeds contain less phytic acid than grains/legumes but more enzyme inhibitors, the salt is more beneficial.
Within 7-24 hours (depending on the seed, nut, grain or legume – again, see table below) – or if sprouting, it can be up to 3 days – many of the enzyme inhibitors are broken down. At this point, a dehydrating process beings to return the nuts to a crisp, crunchy texture. In my experience, I’ve found that nuts that have been pre-soaked taste much better!
The process for soaking nuts and seeds is a little different from that of soaking grains and legumes, so I’ll explain each separately.
Soaking nuts & seeds
What you need:
- 2 cups of raw, organic nuts or seeds (don’t mix different seeds/nuts together, it’s better to soak one kind at a time)
- 3-4 cups of warm filtered water (to cover nuts/seeds)
- 1 tbsp of sea salt (or pink Himalayan salt)
How to soak:
- Place warm filtered water in a medium bowl or jar (with a wide mouth, preferably), then add the salt and gently mix around with spoon to help it dissolve.
- Add in nuts or seeds (again, you want to soak just one kind at a time), making sure they’re completely submerged in the water.
- Leave uncovered on the counter (not in the refrigerator) for at least 7 hours, preferably overnight.
- Rinse in a colander and spread on a baking sheet (or reusable silicon sheet) or dehydrator sheet. Bake in the oven at the lowest temperature (65°C or 150°F is optimal) or dehydrate until completely dry (this is important, as any remaining moisture in the nuts or seeds can cause them to go mouldy). Dehydrating time can often take as long as 24 hours. Note: if you plan to use nuts or seeds to make homemade plant milk, you can skip the dehydrating step and just blend the nuts/seeds up right away to make milk, as they are already softened and ready to go! Soaking nuts/seeds before making homemade plant milk is really important as 1) the enzyme inhibitors have been mostly removed and 2) the nuts have been softened to make a creamier milk.
Soaking grains & legumes
What you need:
- warm filtered water
- acidic medium – yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, whey, milk kefir and coconut kefir (note: all dairy needs to be cultured)
- baking soda (for legumes)
How to soak grains:
- Place grains (just one type at a time) into a glass bowl and cover completely with warm filtered water. For every 1 cup of liquid you will need 1 tbsp of acidic medium. All grains (except brown rice, buckwheat and millet) need to be soaked for 12-24 hours. Buckwheat, brown rice and millet have low levels of phytic acid and only require 7 hours soaking time (for other grains see chart below).
- Next, place bowl of soaking grains on countertop and cover. I use a clean towel secured with a rubber band around the edge to hold the towel in place. Allow grain to soak in a warm place (I keep mine on the countertop).
- Rinse grains in a colander, then proceed with recipe. Note: many soaked grains will take less time to cook then non soaked grains.
How to soak legumes:
- For kidney-shaped beans, add enough filtered water to cover the beans and a pinch of baking soda. Cover and allow to sit in a warm place (I keep mine on the countertop) for 12-24 hours, changing the water and baking soda once or twice during that time.
- For non kidney-shaped beans, like northern beans or black beans, place into a pot and add enough filtered water to cover the beans. For every cup of beans, add 1 tbsp of acidic medium. Rinse legumes several times during the soaking time to prevent them from starting to ferment.
- Once finished soaking, rinse the beans out thoroughly in a colander then place into a pot with fresh water, and cook for 4-8 hours on low heat until beans are tender. Note: always rinse legumes before cooking.
How to sprout
Sprouting nuts & seeds
Why sprout? Sprouting goes a step further from soaking and helps reduce levels of enzyme inhibitors even more. Often, products marketed as “sprouted” are merely “activated” by the process of soaking (you’ll know by the look of them whether they’ve been sprouted or not, as they begin to grow little green shoots out of the nut/seed), but certain nuts/seeds can sprout after a few cycles of soaking, rinsing, and exposing them to air to enable germination.
Some nuts like macadamias, pecans and walnuts will not sprout, while raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds make the best candidates for sprouting. Some beans (like kidney beans), on the other hand, are dangerous/toxic when consumed raw and should never be eaten sprouted. Also, special care should be taken to avoid bacteria growth in sprouts. If you’d like to add the additional step of sprouting, simply soak the nuts/seeds following the above process, then rinse and follow the below sprouting process until sprouts occur. Note: this will only work with non-irradiated seeds/nuts/grains/legumes and only with certain varieties. While this extra step does further reduce enzyme inhibitors, it is not often necessary – except for those with digestive problems or severe nutrient deficiencies – as soaking alone tends to be sufficient enough.
The most common seeds used to grow sprouts are:
- Broccoli seeds
- Red clover seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Mung beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Chia seeds
(Note: you can use your sprouted seeds to make a super greens powder!!)
What you need:
- a wide-mouth quart size or half gallon size mason jar
- a sprouting lid or a piece of cheesecloth and a rubber band
- a bowl or box to help the jar stand upside-down at an angle
- organic sprouting seeds – make sure they’re organic AND non-irradiated
How to sprout:
- Wash hands well and make sure all equipment is clean and sterile.
- Pour seeds (again, you want to use just one kind at a time) into jar. Use about 1 tsp of small seeds like alfalfa or broccoli or 1/4 cup of beans and lentils (for a quart size jar).
- Cover with 1 cup filtered water and put lid or cheesecloth over jar. Allow to soak for up to 12 hours (I find the best time to do this is at night, as you can let them soak overnight and they’re usually ready by morning!).
- Once soaked, strain out the water. If you have a sprouting lid, this makes it really easy to do as the water rushes out, leaving the seeds/nuts/legumes behind. If you’re using a cheesecloth, strain through a fine strainer and return to the jar.
- Rinse well with filtered water and drain again (this helps clean off any resin containing the antinutrients).
- Place upside down at a slight angle so that excess water can drain out and air can get in. I usually use our dish rack, or a medium size bowl for this.
- Continue rinsing the sprouts with filtered water several times a day (this helps prevent them from drying out, and also mimics the natural germination process), returning the jar to the tilted position each time.
- You should see signs of sprouting in a day or two, and most sprouts are ready to harvest within 3-7 days! (See chart for guide below)
- When finished sprouting, rinse thoroughly in cool, filtered water then store in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week.
There are some important notes to consider when growing sprouts. Please read this article for cautions and specific instructions to keep in mind when sprouting.
Sprouting grains & legumes
When sprouting, it’s best to use special sprouting seeds, which are free of any bacteria that would be killed if you were to simply boil them as usual.
Continuing on from the soaking process; once finished soaking, put legumes/grains in a mason jar with a sprouting lid, or a cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Turn the jar upside-down and leave at an angle in a bowl or on your dish rack, and set it on the kitchen counter out of the way. You should see sprouts within a day or two, but you can keep sprouting them for a bit longer if you like. Just be sure to give them a rinse once or twice a day. For more details on how to sprout individual legumes and grains, see here.
Unfortunately, with hybridised, highly sprayed and highly processed modern grains, even applying these traditional methods may not be enough to reduce all of the harmful properties found in these foods.
Mark Sisson sums up the effects of soaking and sprouting in his article about traditionally prepared grains:
Effect on phytate: If the grain contains phytase, some of the mineral-binding phytic acid will be deactivated, but not much. And if the grain has been heat-treated, which destroys phytase, or it contains very little phytase to begin with, the phytic acid will remain completely intact. Overall, neither soaking nor sprouting deactivates a significant amount of phytate.
Effect on enzyme inhibitors: Well, since the seed has been placed in a wet medium and allowed to sprout, the enzyme inhibitors are obviously mostly deactivated. Digestion is much improved (cooking will improve it further).
Effect on lectins: The evidence is mixed, and it seems to depend on the grain. Sprouted wheat, for example, is extremely high in WGA, the infamous wheat lectin. As the wheat grain germinates, the WGA is retained in the sprout and is dispersed throughout the finished plant. In other grains, sprouting seems more beneficial, but there’s always some residual lectins that may need further processing to deactivate.
Effect on gluten: Sprouting reduces gluten to some extent, but not by very much. Don’t count on it. A little bit goes a long way.Mark Sisson
While soaking & sprouting may take up a bit of time, I believe it’s well worth the effort 🙂
Soaking + sprouting tutorial
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. It’s important to check with a doctor before taking this or any new product.
Have you soaked or sprouted nuts, seeds, grains or legumes before? How did it go? Share below! We’d love hear!
Lots of love,
Wells, Katie. (Updated: July 30, 2019). The Importance of Soaking Nuts & Seeds. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/59139/soaking-nuts-seeds/
Wells, Katie. (May 8, 2020). Spill the Beans: Are They Healthy Or Not?. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/2029/are-beans-healthy/
Wells, Katie. (Updated: July 30, 2019). How to Grow Sprouts In Your Kitchen. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/36686/grow-sprouts/
Wells, Katie. (Updated: May 22, 2020). Are Sprouted, Soaked, & Fermented Grains Healthy?. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/3807/sprouted-soaked-fermented-grains-healthy
Halle, Cottis. Are Soaking Grains & Legumes Necessary & How to Properly Soak & Prepare Them. Whole Lifestyle Nutrition. Retrieved from https://wholelifestylenutrition.com/health/is-soaking-grains-and-legumes-necessary-and-how-to-properly-soak-and-prepare-them/
Sisson, Mark. Are Traditionally Prepared Grains Healthy?. Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved from https://www.marksdailyapple.com/soaked-sprouted-fermented-grains/
Kooienga, McKel, MS, RDN, LDN. (August 3, 2020). How to Use Soaking and Sprouting (And Why It’s Beneficial!). Nutrition Stripped. Retrieved from https://nutritionstripped.com/guide-to-soaking-and-sprouting/
Move Nourish Believe Team. (January 30, 2019). How to Soak & Sprout Grains, Nuts, Seeds & Beans. Move Nourish Believe. Retrieved from https://www.movenourishbelieve.com/nourish/how-to-soak-and-sprout/
Masters, Tess. (March 18, 2013). How to Soak & Sprout Nuts, Seeds, Grains, & Beans. Vegetarian Times. Retrieved from https://www.vegetariantimes.com/skills/how-to-soak-sprout-nuts-seeds-grains-beans/