6 Tremendous Health Benefits of Phytic Acid: The Unsung Hero of Vegan Diets
Phytic acid is a largely misunderstood topic and the source of an endless amount of confusion.
This organic compound also known as phytate or inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) is found in plant foods such legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and other vegetables.
Naturally, a whole food plant-based diet is going to supply plenty of this compound - it's a diet based heavily on these phytate-rich foods.
Phytate carries a negative connotation at it has been mostly recognized for its anti-nutritional properties.
If you go on google there's an abundance of articles written on this topic by low-carb bloggers and paleo gurus. These informational pieces paint a picture of phytate as a nutritional blackhole, sucking all the vitamins, minerals and the very life out of your body.
By putting two and two together the implied notion is that a vegan diet, with loads of vegetables, legumes and grains and consequently phytate, would drain your body of all nutrients.
Safe to say that this is not a nuanced explanation of this very interesting and peculiar compound. What is hardly ever mentioned though is that phytic acid has serious positive implications for health, longevity and disease-prevention.
What is phytic acid?
Phytic acid functions as phosphorus storage as well as an energy source for plants. It is found within the hulls of seeds, including nuts, grains and pulses.
Interestingly, it's also an active component present in all mammalian cells.
This molecule is involved in regulating vital cellular functions and acts as both a natural antioxidant and neurotransmitter.
The bad rep phytate has gotten is due to it's affinity to bind and chelate with minerals such as zinc and iron in the gastrointestinal tract - thus interfering with mineral absorption and might adversely affect mineral uptake.
Notice the wording 'might adversely affect mineral uptake'.
Not the terms paleo proponents throw around such as 'eliminate' or 'steal' or 'erase' or 'kill you and steal your TV'.
Let's get one thing clear. The net effect of eating legumes and whole grains on mineral status will always be positive, it's only the potential for absorption that might be reduced by the presence of phytate.
Anti-nutrients and the vegan diet
Based on some promising evidence, a plant-based diet can actually help to mitigate the anti-nutritional qualities of phytate.
One study found that vegetarian and vegan diets which are rich in phytate, increased the potential of the gut flora to degrade phytate. So the more phytate present in the diet, the more efficient the gut flora also becomes at breaking down this phytate.
Another particularly interesting study had 32 females put on either a low or high phytate diet.
Serum iron response to a meal, containing 350 mg phytate, was recorded at baseline and after intervention.
After 8 weeks, the high phytate diet had resulted in a 41% increase in iron absorption. Meanwhile in the low phytate group absorption had been reduced by 21%. Non-heme iron was used in this study which makes it even more relevant in the context of discussing plant-based diets.
So it does seem like a habitual consumption of foods high in phytate reduces the negative impact on mineral absorption.
Moreover the view of phytate as an anti-nutrient is becoming more and more outdated with new research surfarcing. In the paper Protection Against Cancer by Dietary IP 6 and Inositol the authors state...
Although in the past some concerns have been expressed regarding intake of foods high in IP-6 that might reduce the bioavailability of dietary minerals, recent studies demonstrate that this “anti-nutrient” effect of IP-6 can be manifested only when large quantities of IP-6 are consumed in combination with a diet poor in trace elements
Tis' true that switching to a vegan diet with plenty of legumes and whole grains results in a greater amount of dietary phytate - that this would equate to mineral deficiencies seems very unlikely.
A phytate per day keeps the doctor away
That is how the saying goes, right? If not it should.
With having addressed the issue of phytate and it's proposed anti-nutritional qualities, we can focuse on the superhero-like powers.
Warning, the rabbit hole of potential health effects linked to phytate is really deep.
The demonization of this compound by some people is just incredibly inane when considering the many documented health benefits linked to dietary phytate.
What happens after phytates gets absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract is that they proceed to have a literal party in the body.
Helps protect against cardiovascular disease
Phytate has the capacity to lower serum cholestorol and triglyceride levels as well as inhibit platelet aggregation i.e blood clotting.
This is favourable when dealing with high cholestorol levels and helps protect against cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Prevents kidney stone formation
Moreover phytate has been shown to inhibit crystallization of calcium salts.
What this means is a potential treatment for kidney stones as it prevents formation in the first place. In one epidemiological study dietary phytate was linked with reduced risk of stone formation.
Potential protective effect for Parkinson's disease
Parkinson's disease (PD) is neurodegenerative brain disorder which shortly summarized causes dopamine neurons to die off.
The brain stops producing dopamine which leads to a host of severe problems. Excessive iron accumulated in the brain causes oxidative stress and is thought to play an important role in worsening this affliction.
One study using a cell culture model of Parkinson's disease investigated if IP6 could help due to its iron-chelating property and anti-oxidative effects.
Results in the dopaminergic cells were increased cell viability, decreased cell death, increased cell survival and reduction in DNA fragmentation. Indicating that phytic acid might be of help in protecting against Parkinson's disease.
Promotes strong and healthy bones
Want a solid and strong skeleton? You should eat phytate.
Studies have shown that phytate actually helps protect against osteoporosis and reduce fracture risk. One study went as far to suggest that low phytate consumption should even be considered an osteoporosis risk factor.
So instead of having to rely on drugs, we can instead gorge ourselves on phytate-rich beans, lentils, grains and vegetables.
Phytate has been shown to reduce the harmful impact of mycotoxins
Exposure to small amounts of mycotoxin, which can be present in foods such as nuts and grains, can cause a wide range of adverse health effects in humans.
One study compared a group of rats that were subjected to mycotoxin, in the form of aflatoxin, to a group that simultaneously were treated with IP6.
Results were pretty amazing. Phytate had helped lessen the impact of lowered testosterone levels and oxidative stress markers, improved antioxidant enzyme activities and had a regenerative effect on reproductive functions.
Another study demonstrated that phytic acid decreased the negative effects of mycotoxins on the cell membrane integrity of intestine walls of pigs.
Can help prevent, treat and cure cancer
Yet the most astonishing, well-documented and perhaps most important health benefit is the anticancer capacity of phytate, or more commonly used in scientific papers IP6.
Since some time now it's been established that a high fiber intake intake is good for you, being assiociated with reduced risk of colon cancer, providing cholesterol-lowering effects and an improved glucose response.
However high-fiber diets don't always correlate with lower frequency of colon cancer - suggesting there might be a missing piece of the puzzle.
You guessed it, phytic acid.
IP6 functions as an antioxidant by chelating with reactive iron and reducing free radical generation, which as mentioned can also help in protecting against Parkinson's disease.
This helps explain the suppression of bowel cancer and other inflammatory bowel diseasesas phytate reduces oxidant stress to the surface of the digestive tract
Inhibits growth of many cancer forms
IP6 has been show to inhibit the growth of all tested cancerous cell lines in vitro - including colon cancer cells, human leukemia cells, estrogen receptor-positive and negative breast cancer cells, laryngeal cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic, muscle cancers, melanoma and liver tumors.
That is a lot of different cancers. It doesn't only inhibit growth, but it does so in a highly sophisticated manner.
Cancer treatment should only attack malignant cells, not other normal cells.
IP6 has been shown to possess this selective trait. One study showed that treating leukaemic samples of bone marrow cells with IP6 inhibited cancer growth. When normal bone marrow specimens were subjected to IP6 they weren't affected.
Another astonishing property is its potential to induce differentiation in malignant cells. In normal speak this means reversing cancer cells back to normal cells.
The anticancer activity of IP6 has been shown in a multitude of studies on rats and other animals as well as in vitro human studies. See the picture below for an idea of the magnitude of body of evidence.
How phytic acid fights cancer
Phytic acid attacks cancer through many different pathways, making it a very potent anticancer remedy.
It does so through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, by augmenting the immune system's natural killer cells (how badass doesnt that sound!), modifying drug-metabolizing enzymes and detoxification, induction of cell death, suppression of proliferation, influencing cell cycle, differentiation and angiogenesis.
A recent study looked at mechanisms behind the anticancer activity of IP6 on colon cancer. The cancer cells treated with IP6 showed inhibited proliferation and stimulated apoptosis (self-destruction). The authors concluded that this effect was due to a modulation of the AKT/mTOR pathway, which is essential for the development and progression of colon cancer.
Studies on humans
As of now there is some promising evidence, but more clinical trials needs to be done.
Enhanced anticancer activity was demonstrated in a clinical trial involving 22 patients that suffered advanced bowel cancer with multiple liver and lung metastasis. Phytate was given as an adjuvant to chemotherapy i.e. given afterwards to further help in treatment and to prevent recurrence.
One of the patients with liver metastasis declined chemotherapy after the first treatment and was given only phytic acid. Remarkably, 14 months after surgery, an ultrasound showed significantly reduced growth rate only having taken phytate. The results for the group as a whole showed an overall reduced tumor growth rate and in some cases a regression of lesions.
When IP6 is given in combination with chemotherapy, the side effects of chemotherapy such as drop in leukocyte and platelet counts, nausea, vomiting, were reduced. Patients also experienced significantly better quality of life and and were better able to perform daily activities.
It is about time to revise the popular belief that phytic acid is something best avoided.
In fact we should encourage the exact opposite, make sure your diet is brimming with this nutrient.
As the quote from the paper Anti-cancer function of phytic acid states
Aside from the anticancer action, IP6 and inositol also have numerous other health benefits. All these facts of normal physiological presence of IP6 in our body the level of which fluctuates with intake, association of an IP6-rich diet with low incidence of several diseases and vice versa, and finally reversal of some of these conditions, at least in part, by IP6 supplementation strongly argue in favour of its inclusion as an essential nutrient or perhaps a vitamin.
So phytic acid resembles the activity of vitamins in the body, offers a variety of health benefits, is associated with lower incidence of several diseases and has been shown to fight cancer.
And yet some people encourage us to cut this nutrient out of our diet completely? *cough Weston A. Price*
There might be a simpler way to great health than obbsessing over expensive superfoods which comes and goes out of fashion.
Eat beans, lentils, whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds. And a lot of them.
For a more concentrated dosage of phytic acid there is also IP6 supplements. If you've got time feel free to look up some of the reviews, the results people get are absolutely amazing.
If this article was helpful make sure to share with anyone who would find this interesting and let me know what your thoughts are about phytate in the comments!