Baby Sara was born into the Glick family in the summer of 1999. Having seven older brothers, she was the cherished little girl the family had hoped for. Samuel and Elizabeth Glick were Amish dairy farmers in rural Pennsylvania. Four months later however, baby Sara became very ill. When Elizabeth found her unconscious in her crib she was rushed to the hospital. The attending physician noted a hemorrhage in her right eye and extensive bruising on her body, and suspected that her injuries were caused by child abuse. Two days later she died. The county coroner found midbrain damage and bleeding, typically caused by shaking babies violently. The cause was said to be a “closed-head injury” and suspected to be an act of homicide.
Samuel and Elizabeth Glick not only lost their baby girl, but all seven of their sons were taken from their home by Child Protective Services, placed in non-Amish foster homes, and the story went on national news. Dr. Holmes Morton, a Harvard trained pediatrician who specialized in genetic-based diseases found out about the situation. He worked with the Amish community and was respected by them. After meeting with the parents, Morton concluded that Sara’s death was not the result of child abuse but was due to a genetic liver condition, which resulted in a vitamin K deficiency and bile salt transporter disorder. He had previously seen this in 14 other Amish children and some of Sara’s cousins. Though not overnight, the Glick boys would return to their home and Samuel and Elizabeth would be exonerated from the charges placed against them.
The facts as we see them, or as they are presented to us, do not always tell the whole story. This is more often the case than not. We ourselves base decisions or come to conclusions that are founded on partialities more than we may like to admit, or are perhaps aware of.
Recently, my husband shared an article with me discussing the nutritional advantages that white rice has over brown rice. It presented the case that minerals are better absorbed from fortified white rice than brown rice. The culprit for binding mineral bioavailability in the brown rice was identified as phytate.
Articles sourced from those who promote “ancestral” forms of eating have expressed their concern that phytic acid found in grains, nuts, seeds and beans represents a serious problem in our diets. Calcium, iron and zinc deficiencies are attributed to this anti-nutrient. Some have even labeled it a toxin.
There are those who have witnessed the deficits in calcium, iron and zinc along with key vitamins in developing countries where the major staples of the diet are plant foods, namely grains. Associated with diets based on unrefined cereals and legumes, the nutrient deficiencies are considered to be partially due to poor bioavailability as a result of phytate content. Bioavailability is referring to the actual absorption and utilization of the nutrient. It is influenced by dietary and physiological factors. The emphasis in this arena is what can be done to increase bioavailability.
Interestingly enough, phytic acid is not the only ingredient in plant foods that is classified as an anti-nutrient. Oxalic acid, found in spinach, inhibits calcium absorption. Enzyme inhibitors, found in soybeans, prevent protein absorption. Why would anti-nutrients be found in foods that we have thought to be nutrient rich; which we believe were designed to provide optimal nutrition?
Phytate is found in the bran and germ of grains, in legumes, nuts and seeds. It prevents premature germination and stores the phosphorous that plants need to grow. We wouldn’t be able to store these food items through the winter if it weren’t for phytates. When seed germination begins, for example, after a good soaking in the ground, “phytate is hydrolyzed, and phosphorous along with minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron are liberated, becoming available for germination and development of the seedlings.”1
Phytic acid is a phytochemical with significant anti-cancer and other health benefits
Phytate’s molecular structure is attracted to minerals and binds with them, plain and simple. Phytate sounds fine and dandy for the seed’s sake, but what about its impact on us?
Lab analysis and experiments have demonstrated that when phytic acid is added to refined flour magnesium absorption is decreased. “Consuming 5-10 mg of phytic acid can reduce iron absorption by 50%.”2 While in the intestines, phytic acid can bind the minerals iron, zinc, and manganese. Once bound, they are then excreted. All that good nutrition is whisked away.
Interestingly enough, however, there are others who have found a bright side to the apparently bleak phytate saga. They call phytate a phytochemical, an antioxidant, a blood sugar lowering agent, and an anti-cancer compound. Another term for phytate is inositol hexaphosphate (IP6). I will cite some conclusions of researchers who approached phytate from the other side of the mountain.
“Recently IP(6) has received much attention for its role in cancer prevention and control of experimental tumor growth, progression, and metastasis. In addition, IP(6) possesses other significant benefits for human health, such as the ability to enhance the immune system, prevent pathological calcification and kidney stone formation, lower elevated serum cholesterol, and reduce pathological platelet activity.”3
“All of the evidence regarding the anti-cancer effects of IP6 has come from laboratory cell cultures and animal studies. Laboratory studies of cell cultures have shown that IP6 may help put cancer cells on a path toward normal cell death and may help keep them from spreading to other parts of the body. It may also affect the growth of blood vessels that supply the tumor and the immune system in general. These studies have shown IP6 may have activity against cancer of the pancreas, breast, prostate, colon, and other types of cancer. Results of some studies in cells have also suggested that IP6 may help certain chemotherapy or hormone therapy drugs work better.
Studies in animals have found that supplementing the animals’ diets with IP6 may help prevent tumors from forming in the prostate, lung, colon, skin, and other areas.”4
Joel Fuhrman states, “Phytic acid is a phytochemical with significant anti-cancer and other health benefits such as reducing inflammation, lowering blood sugar and insulin, and protection against diabetes, Parkinson’s, and even reduces kidney stone formation.”5
“The bioavailability of different minerals and trace elements is considerably reduced by phytate complexes…. There is also evidence for protective functions of phytic acid such as the prevention of the formation of free radicals, the delaying of post-prandial glucose absorption, the decrease in plasma cholesterol and triglycerides as well as a change in the carryover of heavy metals.”6
Preconceived opinions aside, how do you process conflicting information on any given subject? Acknowledging that I do not know all the facts is a good place to begin. When you don’t have all the facts, be slow to come to definite conclusions or state positions as absolutes. When you don’t have all the facts, pray for wisdom. For, the promise is that if any of us lacks wisdom, “let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally” (James 1:5, NKJV). “Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times, and the strength of salvation” (Isaiah 33:6, NKJV). I hope you will wait to come to any definite conclusions on phytates. We do not have enough information. May God grant us wisdom and knowledge.
- Wenche Frølich, “Phytate–a natural component in plant food”
- Ryan Andrews, “Phytates and phytic acid”
- Vucenik I, Shamsuddin AM, “Protection against cancer by dietary IP6 and inositol,” Nutr Cancer, 2006;55(2):109-25
- “Inositol Hexophosphate,” American Cancer Society, 8/5/13
- Linda Carney, MD, “Phytic acid in Grains? No problem!”
- J. Pallauf, G. Rimbach, “Nutritional significance of phytic acid and phytase,” Arch Tierernahr, 1997;50(4):301-19
Risë Rafferty, RDN
Risë is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and has been writing and teaching about health for many years. She loves the health message and takes great pleasure in seeing people thrive by the application of its principles. Her research and down-to-earth manner allow her to offer up the health message in both an intelligent and accessible manner. She and her husband, James Rafferty, have two children.