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

Ingredients

  • 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

Dressing:

  • 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.

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