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The Truth About Phytates

By Keith Dresser Published

Grains play a vital role in a balanced diet—but they also contain a controversial compound.

For years we’ve been told that for better health we need to eat more whole grains. Has this advice actually been detrimental to our health?

Grains, which are packed with beneficial nutrients such as fiber and protein, play a vital role in a balanced diet. But grains also contain a high proportion of phytates, a compound that has recently been criticized by nutritionists because of its ability to hinder the body’s absorption of certain key minerals.

To better understand phytates and the related health concerns for home cooks, I spoke to Kelly Toups, director of nutrition at Whole Grains Council, a Boston-based advocacy group established in 2003, which works to help consumers better understand the health benefits of whole grains.

Phytates are a compound found in almost all plants, but there is a higher percentage in nuts, edible seeds, beans/legumes, and grains, where they act as energy storage for a future plant. Phytates are referred to as “antinutrients” because they “bind to minerals, like iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium, and make it more difficult for our bodies to be able to absorb them,” Toups said. It’s this mineral-binding effect that leads some to think that eating grains will lead to a mineral deficiency.

Toups thinks this deficiency is an issue only if “you don’t have a lot of variety in your diet” or “are suffering from a very high level of food insecurity.” For “home cooks that have access to a grocery store” and a varied diet, the shortage shouldn’t be an issue.

She also points out the benefits. “Phytates are found in really healthy food groups, foods that are strongly and consistently associated with the reduced risk of chronic disease. So generally speaking, a higher-phytates diet would tend to be a healthier diet.” There is also research underway showing that phytates have “cancer-preventative properties, antioxidant properties, as well the ability to prevent kidney stones.”

Lilian Cheung, a lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the editorial director of the Nutrition Source, the school’s nutrition website, was a little more cautious in her approach to phytates. She said that phytates can be a problem for “those already at risk for nutrient deficiencies.” For people with osteoporosis, a calcium deficiency, anemia, or an iron deficiency, monitoring their intake of phytates is important. Cheung also included vegetarians and vegans in this group, saying, “When people are vegans and vegetarians, they need to be paying attention to the combinations of food they eat since some important minerals are less available.”

Although Cheung did advise caution, she provided some sound advice for anyone concerned with eating a phytate-rich diet: “You want to avoid eating large amounts of a single food and separate the whole grains from other mineral-rich foods, so instead of a whole grain with your yogurt, chose some blueberries and eat the whole grain later.” She also stressed that the health benefits of eating plant-based foods, such as grains, outweighed any negative nutritional effects and that “in diets with a variety of plants and lean animal food, you don’t really have to worry about phytates.”

Recipe Wheat Berry Salad with Radicchio, Dried Cherries, and Pecans

A perfect pot of tender-chewy grains is the foundation for an abundance of dishes.

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JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.