To Soak or Not to Soak Beans?

Beans, Soaking and Phytates

Remember that rhyme: Beans, beans, that wonderful fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot? Ever wished you could toot less? Soaking may make help. It’s a simple and traditional method of starting a pot of beans that was replaced in many cookbooks by boiling or pressure-cooking. If you have already eliminated beans from your diet, such as in the Paleo diet, you may not be interested. But if you are still eating this very economical food, here is why you might take that great step backward in culinary processing.

I soak my beans and grains. At first I did so because of concerns over phytates, which prevent digestion. It made such sense to me that eating undigestible proteins would cause … well … indigestion. When unsoaked beans and grains are cooked, most of the phytates remain in the food. The phytates are reduced by soaking as well as by cooking. There are pros and cons to this (see below). I soak mine for 24 hours, in water acidified with vinegar, rinsing every few hours. I like the legumes to at least double in size, like these cranberry beans did (unsoaked on left):

In addition to wanting reduced phytates, I also soak because the beans then take less time to cook, are more flavorful to my palate, and result in almost no digestive issues in people whom I’ve fed them to. I most often make my cooked beans into refried beans ( a legacy from growing up in Southern California) or into something like the salad recipe I’ve shared here, to be sure to include raw foods along with the cooked ones. I have used navy beans because they are GAPS-diet friendly, cook quickly and take the other flavors in the salad well.

Other legumes that are tasty in this recipe are cranberry beans and lentils. I never use soybeans because, according to my naturopath, they have too many phytoestrogens for me; and although I love garbanzos, they never really get quite tender enough for this recipe.

Navy Bean Salad


  • 1 cup navy beans (soaked 24 hours, then cooked in crock pot until tender)
  • ½ c red onion, finely chopped
  • ½ c kalamata olives, chopped
  • handful of parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup  soaked, lightly salted, toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped


  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon Real salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Chemistry and controversy:

Phytic acid and its salt, phytate, are abundant in bran and seeds. It is the way seeds store phosphorus, an element all organisms need to form ATP and DNA. Humans don’t have the enzyme to obtain the phosphorus from the phytates, but ruminants like cows do. In addition, the phytates bind with minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron in the diet and prevent them from being absorbed and used by us. Seeds like grains and legumes, as well as nuts, contain phytates whose role is to prevent germination until the seed is in a moist enough environment to survive.

The interference with mineral absorption is most risky for people who have based a very large amount of their diets on grains and beans and don’t supplement with electrolyte minerals such as magnesium and calcium. Some diets in third-world countries rely on grain-legume combinations. I suspect, though, that people in those countries are more likely to soak their seeds, such as the alkaline treatment of corn before making tortillas, than busy first-world cooks.

Beyond these basic facts, however, there is considerable disagreement about how healthful the phytates are in the human diet. In fact, this is one of the most confusing topics I’ve researched for this blog! Dietary persuasions range from grain-and-bean-rich, vegan diets, to grain-and-bean-free diets, such as Paleo and similar ones. I have not included all of the thoughts, since this page would be very long and would duplicate some of the fascinating work already done. I include samples below, and encourage you to read further.

Chris Kresser, a naturopathic physician, describes phytates as toxins to avoid, and summarizes several reasons in his clear and well-written site. He lists several dangers of refined cereal grains, in particular.

The Rodale Foundation
 states, “as long as you’re consuming 1,200 mg of calcium a day, phytate-packed foods—such as legumes (lentils, beans), almonds, and whole grains—won’t hurt your body’s ability to process the calcium,” says author Cosman. “You’ll reap the bone-protecting benefits both substances provide, plus other perks: Legumes, for example, are packed with fiber, natural phytochemicals, minerals, and vitamins that are beneficial to health.”

At least two sources suggest that phytates can be helpful in nutrition, including inhibiting cancer cells as summarized by this abstract from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Lastly, the National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests that not getting enough phytates can be dangerous for bone health here.  “Multivariate linear regression analysis indicated that body weight and low phytate consumption were the risk factors with greatest influence on bone mineral density. Phytate consumption had a protective effect against osteoporosis, suggesting that low phytate consumption should be considered an osteoporosis risk factor.”

Maybe now you are as confused as I am! For now, I’m leaving wheat (and any refined grains) out of my diet for many reasons, but leaving soaked beans, in moderation, in.


Probiotic Fun: Simple Sauerkraut

Making Your Own Fermented Foods: It’s like Gardening

According to Dr. Weston Price in his book Nutrition and Physical Degradation, our health is enhanced when we include fermented foods in our diet. He states that all healthy traditional cultures ate foods such as poi, yogurt, sauerkraut and tsukemono, kim chee, kefir, kombucha, salsas, chutneys, natto, miso and fermented fish. The bacteria and yeasts in these foods helped maintain a healthy immune system and kept disease-causing bacteria and other organisms from overgrowing the digestive system then, and are needed by us today. Fermented foods are eaten raw, which meant the enzymes in those foods are not denatured as they would be by cooking.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut are slightly sour, or can be eaten more or less sour, like poi. A number of my students said that eating sour foods helped them with craving sweets, and I’ve found that to be true also. This sauerkraut is tasty in salads and by itself. I have tried fermenting cabbage in my high school chemistry classes without whey to focus on the effects of the salt alone. In this case you need to add more salt than this recipe contains. The fermentation with the whey results on a more predictable product. It’s fun to watch the bubbles appear and the color changes, and to anticipate eating the experiment. If you are not sure what naturally-fermented sauerkraut should taste like, or don’t have the time or facilities to try making your own, Bubbies makes a wonderful one.

This recipe is adapted from similar ones in Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon.

Pink Sauerkraut

This sauerkraut is pink because it is made with some purple cabbage, which shares its color with the whole batch. In Step 1, whey is obtained from unsweetened yogurt. You may have seen the whey accumulating in a container of yogurt that has been open for a day or two. Now you know something great to do with it! In Step 2, the whey is used as a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria in transforming the cabbage into sauerkraut.

Step 1: Set a clean piece of unbleached muslin into a colander that can drain into a clean bowl; this is at room temperature.  Pour about 1 cupful of plain, whole milk fresh organic yogurt (Straus and Brown Cow work well) into the muslin.

  • Allow the liquid whey to drain into the lower bowl.
  • This will take about 2-3 hours depending on the temperature of the room.
  • Yield: about 1/4 cup whey.
  • The more solidified yogurt that stays in the muslin liner is now similar in texture to Greek yogurt, and can be used like cream cheese or sour cream, as on beet soup (see photo at bottom).
  • Step 2: Combine in a clean, 1-quart glass canning jar:
    • 3 1/2 cups shredded green cabbage, preferably organically grown
    • 1/2 cup shredded purple cabbage, preferably organically grown
    • 1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded carrots, preferably organically grown
    • 2 tsp Real Salt or Himalayan salt
    • 1/4 cup fresh whey
    • Filtered water

    Using a wooden pounder or the thick end of a wooden spoon (some of the bamboo spoons on the market today have handles that are about an inch wide, as in the photo), push the vegetables firmly down into the jar. Dissolve the salt in about 1 cup of the water and pour over the shredded vegetables. Pour the whey in. Add more water until the liquid is 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover the vegetables with a section of cabbage leaf to protect them from the air. Cover with the lid, leaving it slightly loose. Set the jar on a surface that will not be damaged if some liquid escapes.

    Allow to ferment at room temperature, ideally between 70-75 degrees F**, until bubbles are appearing in the jar, the color of the green cabbage changes to off-white or pale green, and the purple color turns pink* and dissolves throughout the jar. The sauerkraut takes 2-3 days to ferment and should taste slightly sour* but still retain some crunch. Once fermentation is complete, refrigerate at 38 degrees F.

    *Chemistry notes:

    Color changes: The color of the purple cabbage comes from the pigment anthocyanin. The pigment is purple in the fresh cabbage, and becomes more pink as the lactic acid bacteria in the whey convert the sugars from the cabbage to lactic acid and CO2. The longer they continue their fermentation process, the more the pH drops. The lactic acid is what gives organisms like “Lactobacillus” their name and lacto-fermented foods their sour taste. The increasing acidity prevents other microorganisms from growing in, and contaminating, your sauerkraut.

    Why salt? The salt in the solution does two things: it causes some water to be drawn out of the cabbage cells by osmosis, resulting in the crisp texture; and prevents salt-intolerant bacteria and other organisms other than the lactic acid bacteria from being able to grow. The result: a tasty, crunchy condiment full of healthy probiotics.

    ** Temperature note for fermenting in the tropics: In Honolulu my kitchen air temperature routinely measures about 85 F in the afternoon, but I have found that as long as I keep checking the flavor and color of the fermented food, I don’t need to create a cooler place for it. Expect to shorten the fermenting time by anywhere from 12-24 hours.

    Borscht with “Yogurt Cheese”


Basic Food Chemistry

Nutrition Chemistry in (VERY) Brief: Have you ever heard this line in a sci-fi film: We are carbon-based life forms! The human body requires six types of nutrients. The term “organic” means that a substance contains the element carbon in a certain relationship to hydrogen (methane, the simplest organic compound, though not edible, is shown above).  This is a different meaning from “organically grown” which means that the farmer is paying careful attention to avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, among other criteria. Three of the six nutrients are organic substances we need for calories: carbohydrate, protein and fats.

Carbohydrates are organic substances with the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio 1:2:1. For example, the important sugar in our blood, glucose, is written C6H12O6. We metabolize the glucose and transform it to energy, CO2 and H2O in a process called cellular respiration. We are always breathing out the CO2 and water produced. The amount that a substance will affect the blood sugar is called the glycemic index, and it is compared to the effect of eating glucose. The more refined and sugar-like a substance is, the greater the effect on the blood sugar, which is why fructose and sucrose have large effects, and proteins and fats have small ones.

File:Amylose 3Dprojection.corrected.png

You can raise your blood sugar almost as quickly with refined starches that are the bulk of white wheat flour, white rice and other grains. These starches are polymers (chains) of glucose molecules, and are converted to blood glucose with just one or a few enzymes. The diagram above shows four glucose molecules (roughly hexagonal) bonded together. The brackets around one of them indicate that this pattern repeats a certain number of times, usually more than a thousand.

A number of diets such as the pH Miracle and Elimination Diets suggest not eating refined starches because they are converted to glucose so quickly. Others, like the Paleo Diet, suggest not eating any grains. Whole foods like vegetables and fruits contain carbohydrate, but the sugars will be present with some fiber and some protein, not to mention vitamins and antioxidants. Grains and legumes, most of which need to be cooked, will be starchier, which is partly why they are more filling. They can be excellent sources of protein, fiber and some fats.

Fats are slowly metabolized to sugars, requiring many enzymes, which is why you rarely hear anyone suggest eating them for quick energy. They are essential for their role in hormones, cell walls and antioxidant production, which is why a fat-free eating plan is dangerous for any length of time. Most people have heard the words “essential fatty acids” and know they are important, but will sometimes be buying fat-free products at the same time. I believe it’s worth spending a little more money to use the healthiest fats available, focusing on whole sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flax seed, walnuts, wild salmon, grass-fed dairy, and eggs from pastured or flax-fed chickens.

Proteins can be converted to sugars but usually are not; this requires many enzymes and thus a lot of energy. Your proteins are converted to blood sugars in the case of very low-carbohydrate diets; this process carries the risks of ketosis and gout, which is why Dr. Robert Atkins advised people to stay on his strict diet for a relatively short period of time. The GAPS introduction diet also needs to be carefully planned to avoid ketosis by including enough vegetables to balance the high protein content.

Vitamins are important organic substances, but provide no calories. Vitamins are needed for cells to convert the other organic substances to energy, often being substances that allow your digestive enzymes to function. This is why you should never consume vitamins without food. The last two nutrients are minerals and water. Minerals provide electrolytes and the materials for bones among other essential roles. Water not only helps carry nutrients around the body but is also taken up and given off in metabolism.

Our Personal Eating Research Project

The Main Idea:  During the seventeen years I taught high school chemistry, I often joked that I could have taught a lot of it in a kitchen. Well, everything except the explosions. My students, though, were fascinated (at least they said they were!) to learn what was behind food labels and connect the chemistry with their health. Thanks to the students at the Honolulu Waldorf School for their wonderful questions over all those years.

The Body as a Research Project.

Every day we conduct biochemical research on our own bodies. Most of the time, though, we don’t collect data. Rather, we eat and run and hope it’s healthy, struggle to decide about low-fat or low-carb, or eat what’s handy. In our earliest years we trust others to do the shopping, cooking and feeding. Our organs and enzymes faithfully process what we eat and provide us with the energy and nutrients in the food, and will do so until they get worn out with age or illness. But we can always work to become more conscious of how we are feeling after we eat certain foods, to learn about why this is so, and to choose to change or not.

Why the name un-chemical? Often people will tell me they don’t eat any chemicals, but this is actually impossible. Food is a set of chemicals – which is why the field of “food chemistry” exists, and covers everything from basic carbohydrate, protein and fats to vitamins, probiotics and pros and cons of GMO technology. If we take time to understand the chemistry we can gain some control over it and avoid the refined and toxic chemicals that may be part of the food available to us.

Some food metabolism is well understood, but how to apply it is under great debate. Witness the number of nutrition blogs, weight loss websites and diets! There are passionate advocates of vegetarianism, raw foods, paleo diets, pH diets and everything in between. If you are here, maybe you wonder if they have anything in common, or how to start simply in changing how you eat. Each issue of this blog will contain one or two diet resources, the chemistry behind an issue, a recipe that puts it into practice, and some reading to pursue.