You’ve probably heard it before – soak (or activate) your nuts!
Why should you do this? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Proponents of a raw vegan diet say that the outer layer of nuts contain enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion. That’s why most raw food diet recipes recommend soaking nuts overnight before eating them.
However, there is zero evidence to substantiate the benefits of soaking nuts like this, and it is unlikely that enzyme inhibitors in edible nuts would cause issues with digestion in the amounts we typically eat.
Paleo dieters will point to the phytic acid content of nuts as a reason to soak them in water first. Phytic acid (also referred to as phytate) is a naturally-occurring compound in many foods that binds with the minerals iron and zinc, and to a lesser extent, calcium.
What this means is that some (but not all) of the minerals in a handful of raw almonds may not be bio-available due to the naturally-occurring phytic acid.
So you should always soak raw nuts before you eat them, right? Well, no. Not at all!
I almost never soak raw nuts. Here’s why:
1) The phytic acid content of nuts isn’t actually anything to worry about…unless nuts make up a major portion of your calorie intake. And they shouldn’t. Nuts should supplement your diet.
Soaking nuts is a thing mainly promoted in the raw food movement simply because the standard raw vegan diet relies heavily on nuts and seeds. Most of the raw vegan gourmet recipes in the “cookbooks” and many websites feature nut-centered dishes (ie: nut “cheeses”, nut pates, most raw vegan desserts, flax crackers, etc…).
The majority of calories in a raw vegan diet comes from nuts and seeds, unless a low-fat, fruitarian diet is followed. In this situation, there is risk that the phytic acid content of nuts and seeds in a strict, 100% raw vegan diet could potentially reduce mineral intake over the long term, contributing to mineral deficiency.
However, mineral deficiency in a strict raw vegan diet is more likely to occur from consuming too few calories, or by getting insufficient minerals (particularly iron and zinc) in the diet regardless of phytic acid intake.
Unless you are following a strict, 100% raw vegan diet and consume a significant portion of your calories from raw nuts, soaking them before you eat them is a laborious waste of time. There isn’t enough phytic acid in one or two handfuls of almonds to cause your body any harm, even as a daily snack.
2) Phytic acid actually has some health benefits. As with most scary-sounding “anti-nutrients” (ie: glucosinolates in kale, oxalic acid in spinach) found in most foods, there are health benefits associated with them as well.
Phytic acid in particular is an antioxidant 1, and may provide a protective effect against certain cancers. 2,3,4,5,6 Phytic acid may also help protect against kidney stone formation 7,8, while lowering blood glucose and blood lipid levels 9 – providing heart-healthy benefits.
As is often typical in the natural health movement, alarmist information about certain anti-nutrients in otherwise healthy foods prompts people to either avoid healthy foods, or to take unnecessary precautions (such as soaking all nuts prior to consuming them).
3) Nuts contain more than just phytic acid. Nuts are an excellent source of minerals (despite the small amounts of phytic acid). They provide protein, antioxidants, heart-healthy fats, and fiber. Nutritionally, nuts are a superfood and are widely recommended as a health-supporting food.
Who Should Soak Nuts (And Why You Probably Don’t Need To)
As I mentioned before, raw food dieters who consume a lot of nuts will probably benefit from soaking the nuts before eating them – but only if nuts make up a significant portion of their caloric intake. However, such a nut-heavy diet will produce other health detriments over the long term. And as I said, there are additional risks of mineral deficiency besides phytic acid.
Anyone who is mineral deficient in calcium, iron, or zinc should temporarily decrease exposure to foods that contain phytates. However, increasing mineral intake through therapeutic supplementation and balancing the diet to include more mineral-rich foods is a much better intervention than simply avoiding healthy foods that contain phytates.
For the vast majority of people, there isn’t enough phytic acid in a handful or two of nuts to even worry about. It’s not toxic, and it won’t leach minerals from your body. It won’t cause a mineral deficiency by itself (although it could aggravate an existing deficiency).
Culinary Reasons To Soak Nuts
However, I do soak nuts when I make homemade almond milk as they blend up much better. In fact, any recipe that calls for blended or processed nuts will be better if the nuts were soaked in water for 5-8 hours first.
The exception is for nut butters. I do not recommend soaking nuts prior to blending into a nut butter.
What About The Phytic Acid Content of Beans & Legumes?
Most beans are soaked in water for 8 hours before cooking anyway, so this is much less of a concern.
The phytic acid content in beans and legumes, however, does not make these foods harmful or dangerous unless these foods make up the majority of your caloric intake (which would be an unbalanced diet anyway), or you have an existing mineral deficiency in calcium, iron, or zinc.
As with much of the alarmist information on the Internet (ie: “this healthy food is actually devastating your health”), too much focus is placed on isolated compounds in foods. The overall diet, and how these foods are digested are overlooked.
Instead of taking a holistic approach to food and digestion, anti-nutrient alarmism puts blinders on and doesn’t tell the whole story. It sows fear and confusion.
Bottom line: If you prefer to soak your nuts before you eat them, then keep doing it. It probably isn’t really doing a whole lot for you unless your diet is composed mostly of phytate-containing foods like nuts, seeds and legumes.
If you’d rather opt for the convenience of snacking on raw nuts without soaking first, that’s perfectly fine, too! Eating raw nuts in reasonable amounts without soaking first will not cause mineral deficiencies or digestive difficulties.
1 – Graf E, Empson KL, Eaton JW. Phytic acid. A natural antioxidant. Journal of Biological Chemistry. 1987;262(24):11647-50. PMID: 3040709.
2 – Vucenik I1, Shamsuddin AM. Protection against cancer by dietary IP6 and inositol. Nutr. Cancer. 2006;55(2):109-25. DOI: 10.1207/s15327914nc5502_1.
3 – Shafie NH, Esa NM, Ithnin H, Saad N, Pandurangan AK. Pro-Apoptotic Effect of Rice Bran Inositol Hexaphosphate (IP6) on HT-29 Colorectal Cancer Cells. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2013;14(12):23545-23558. doi:10.3390/ijms141223545.
4 – Singh RP, Agarwal R. Prostate cancer and inositol hexaphosphate: efficacy and mechanisms. Anticancer Research. 2005;25(4):2891-903. PMID: 16080543
5 – Jenab M, Thompson LU. The influence of phytic acid in wheat bran on early biomarkers of colon carcinogenesis. Carcinogenesis. 1998;19(6):1087-92. PMID: 9667748.
6 – Miyamoto S, Kuwata G, Imai M, Nagao A, Terao J. Protective effect of phytic acid hydrolysis products on iron-induced lipid peroxidation of liposomal membranes Lipids. 2000;35(12):1411-3. PMID: 11202004
7 – Grases F, Costa-Bauza A, Prieto RM. Renal lithiasis and nutrition. Nutrition Journal. 2006;5:23. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-5-23.
8 – Grases F, Costa-Bauzá A. Phytate (IP6) is a powerful agent for preventing calcifications in biological fluids: usefulness in renal lithiasis treatment. Anticancer Research 1999;19(5A):3717-22. PMID: 10625946.
9 – Schlemmer, U., Frølich, W., Prieto, R. M. and Grases, F. (2009), Phytate in foods and significance for humans: Food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis. Mol. Nutr. Food Res., 53: S330–S375. doi:10.1002/mnfr.200900099
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