Turning Phytate Into Phosphorus

Phosphorus is a mineral that makes up 1% of your total body weight. While it is in every cell of your body, most of the phosphorus in your body is in your bones and teeth. Approximately 85% of your body’s phosphorus is in your bones.

Not surprisingly, the main function of phosphorus is forming your bones and teeth. It also helps with:

  • Muscle contractions
  • Normal heartbeat
  • Nerve signaling
  • Using carbohydrates and fats
  • Making protein to grow, maintain, and repair your cells and tissues
  • Making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that stores energy
  • Speeding the healing process and putting a stop to calcium loss from injury
  • Helping prevent and treat osteoporosis
  • Helping treat or forestall bone diseases like rickets
  • Preventing stunted growth in children
  • Helping break up and carry away fats and fatty acids in your blood, as well as keeping your blood balanced
  • Keeping your nerves from feeling frazzled, and your mind alert and sharp
  • Stimulating your glands to secrete hormones 
  • Keeping your muscles, including your heart, contracting regularly and smoothly
  • Helping you digest riboflavin and niacin
  • Helping transmit impulses from one nerve to another
  • Helping your kidneys effectively excrete wastes
  • Giving you stable and plentiful energy
  • Forming proteins
  • Reducing arthritis pain
  • Fighting cancer

Phosphorus works with the B vitamins, and it needs proper levels of vitamin D and calcium to function properly.

Because phosphorous is so readily available in food, a diet that provides adequate amounts of calcium and protein also provides an adequate amount of phosphorus.

Note that most of the phosphorus in all plant seeds (beans, peas, grains, and nuts) is in a storage form of phosphate called phytic acid or phytate. Seeds are how most plants reproduce. When they are eaten by animals, it is beneficial to the survival of their species if they can pass through the animal’s digestive system intact to be deposited, encased in fertilizer, elsewhere. In order for the plant to reproduce, it’s necessary that the seed pass through the digestive tract whole (undigested). Many plant seeds have developed defense mechanisms to make them more difficult to digest, including enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion and other natural substances that block nutrient absorption. Phosphorus in the bran of whole grains is bound to phytic acid, which prevents premature germination and stores nutrients for plant growth. Unfortunately, it also reduces the absorption of the important minerals calciummagnesium, iron, and zinc, and reduces the digestibility of protein. This applies not only to the minerals and protein in the food containing the phytic acid, but also the food that you eat with it. Over time, these phytates can lead to mineral deficiencies, allergies, and irritation of the intestinal tract. Cereal grains also contain protease inhibitors, which block enzyme function and protect seeds from being eaten. These inhibitors can also prevent protease enzymes from digesting protein in your digestive tract. Only about 50% of the phosphorus from phytate is available to humans because we lack phytase, the enzyme that liberates phosphorus from phytate.

Traditionally, humans soaked, sprouted,  or fermented seeds before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors so that all the nutrients are more available. Later, humans learned how to “refine” grains by removing the most nutritious parts: the bran and the germ. The remaining endosperm is mostly carbohydrate and lacks the majority of the other nutrients. In fact, refined grains contain 50% less phosphorus. That’s one reason refined grains keep longer: other animals that we call “pests” don’t find them as attractive. Relying on refined grains also meant that humans lost the traditional preparation methods of sprouting, soaking, and fermenting (except in the production of beer).

When a plant seed undergoes germination, changes occur that provide the growing plant with needed nutrients. These changes include the breakdown of phytic acid and complex carbohydrates, the inactivation of protease inhibitors, and the increased availability of vitamins and minerals, all of which increase the nutritional value of the seed and improve its digestibility. In nature, germination typically occurs when a plant seed encounters conditions that are favorable for growth, and that typically involves water. You can easily initiate the germination of grains, beans, or other seeds by soaking them in water. Soaking reduces phytic acid in about 12 hours, although it can take 36 hours to reduce protease inhibitors, but if the grain is cooked after 12 hours of soaking, the protease inhibitors are greatly reduced. Soaking can also increase the content of some vitamins and help break down complex carbohydrates and improve their digestibility, reducing intestinal gas. Cooking also deactivates natural plant toxins that may still exist after soaking.

To prevent grains from absorbing chemicals from the water or container that they’re soaking in, consider using a glass or ceramic container and filtered water. It may also be beneficial to use lukewarm water and increase its acidity with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice or vinegar. Soak seeds for 12 to 24 hours in water with 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice. Rinse well and cook as usual in fresh water.  The picture on the left (above) is a pinto bean before soaking; the picture on the right is a pinto bean from the same lot that has been soaked for 24 hours. See the little sprout?

Soaking seeds is easy; it just takes takes a little discipline. In the evening, put your grains, beans, or nuts in a bowl and cover them with filtered water. By the next day, the grains or beans are ready to cook and the nuts are ready to be made into a delicious beverage or dressing. Yeast also contains phytase, so whole grains incorporated into leavened breads have more bioavailable phosphorus than whole grains incorporated into breakfast cereals or flat breads, unless you buy a brand of cereal or flat bread that is sprouted. Food for Life makes sprouted grain products.

Despite its potentially harmful effects, consuming phytate actually has several benefits. The first is that phytate acts as an antioxidant, which fights free radicals that can damage cells. Second, phytate can combat colon cancer by reducing oxidative stress in your intestinal tract. It may protect against Parkinson’s disease.  Finally, phytate can protect against osteoporosis:

Symptoms of phosphorus deficiency (hypophosphatemia), while rare, may include loss of appetite, anemia, muscle weakness, weight loss, stiff joints, bone pain, decreased growth or rickets in children, poor bone and tooth development, osteomalacia in adults, skin disease, tooth decay, arthritis, increased susceptibility to infection, numbness and tingling sensations, and difficulty walking. Severe hypophosphatemia may result in death. Because phosphorus is so widespread in food, deficiency usually occurs only in cases of starvation. Other people at risk of hypophosphatemia include: 

  • People on diets of 1,000 calories a day or less 
  • Pregnant and nursing women 
  • Alcoholics 
  • People who consume large amounts of antacids
  • Diabetics recovering from an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Starving or anorexic patients on re-feeding regimens that are high in calories but too low in phosphorus

High levels of phosphorus in blood can occur in people with severe kidney disease or severe dysfunction of their calcium regulation. High phosphate levels in your blood reduce the formation of the active form of vitamin D (calcitriol) in your kidneys, reduce blood calcium, and lead to increased parathyroid hormone (PTH) release by the parathyroid glands. 

High intakes of phosphorus, as is found in a diet with meats, soft drinks, and other convenience foods, can affect calcium metabolism. Because phosphorus is not as tightly regulated by the body as calcium, phosphate levels in your blood can rise slightly with a high phosphorus diet, especially after meals.  If you drink too much soda and you don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables and other calcium-rich foods, you are risking your bone health. Potential calcium deficiency symptoms may be more likely when your phosphorus intake is very high. A low calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in your diet increases your risk of hypertension and colon-rectal cancer. Excessively high levels of phosphorus in your blood can combine with calcium to form deposits in soft tissues such as muscle.

According to Institute of Medicine recommendations, the recommended dietary intake of phosphorus for adults is 700 milligrams.

Most seeds, including legumes, whole grains, and nuts, are excellent sources of phosphorous. Refining grains removes 50% of the phosphorus.

Foods high in Phosporous

Food Serving Amount DV
soybeans 1 cup

445mg

63.5%
adzuki beans 1 cup

408mg

58.2%
lentils 1 cup

377mg

53.9%
canned navy beans 1 cup

371mg

53.0%
pumpkin seed kernels 1 ounce

370mg

52.9%
toasted sunflower seed kernels 1 ounce

347mg

59.6%
Kellogg’s All-Bran 1 ounce

300mg

42.9%
chickpeas 1 cup

291mg

41.6%
kidney beans 1 cup

256mg

36.6%
black beans 1 cup

254mg

36.3%
oats 1.6 ounces

235mg

33.6%
pinto beans 1 cup

233mg

33.3%
Brazil nuts 1 ounce

218mg

31.1%
white beans 1 cup

214mg

30.6%
quinoa, cooked 5 ounces

213mg

30.4%
split peas 1 cup

205mg

29.3%
flax seeds 1 ounce

193mg

27.6%
toasted sesame seeds 1 ounce

191mg

27.3%
whole-wheat spaghetti: 7.6 ounces 7.6 ounces

191mg

27.3%
rice cakes 1.8 ounces

180mg

25.7%
peanuts 1.8 ounces

179mg

25.6%
self-rising wheat flour 1 ounce

179mg

25.6%
pine nuts 1 ounce

173mg

24.7%
rye 1.6 ounces

168mg

24.0%
oat bran, cooked 5 ounces

167mg

23.9%
buckwheat 1.6 ounces

156mg

22.3%
wheat bran 0.5 ounces

152mg

21.7%
cashews 1 ounce

147mg

21.0%
pistachios 1 ounce

146mg

20.9%
dried almonds 1 ounce

145mg

20.7%
stir-fried sprouted soybeans 2.3 ounces

140mg

20.0%
millet, cooked 5 ounces

140mg

20.0%

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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