Whether you eat them by the handful, flick them into your mouth one by one, or blend them up into smooth, sweet butters- nuts and seeds are undeniably delicious. Beloved by many, these tasty little superfoods make powerful and convenient additions to nearly any type of diet. However, what often goes unrealized, is that nuts and seeds can be quite problematic and troublesome to digest when not cared for and prepared properly. Using questions from readers, I have pulled together this comprehensive guide for soaking nuts and seeds. Don't miss out on the proteins, minerals and healthy fats that these crunchy tidbits have to offer!
What's wrong with raw nuts and seeds?
Raw nuts, and even more so raw seeds, have notable levels of phytic acid, a form of bound phosphorous, which serves as a physiological protectant and antioxidant for plants. While phytic acid is useful to safeguard the seeds until germination, when eaten by humans it binds to minerals in the gastrointestinal tract, causing irritation and contributing to the potential for nutrient deficiencies. Some animals naturally produce adequate amounts of the enzyme phytase to breakdown this vexing anti-nutrient, however humans do not, causing phytate-heavy diets to be troublesome. Raw nuts also contain a significant amount of enzyme inhibitors, which act to prevent the nut or seed from sprouting prematurely in nature. Yet these enzyme inhibitors can also bind up minerals and and cause digestive strain for nut-munching humans. Most statements extolling the health benefits of raw nuts and seeds are inaccurate as they fail to take into account the fact that many of the nutrients they contain cannot be properly assimilated in their raw form.
Why does soaking help?
The phytates and enzyme inhibitors that make nuts and seeds so tricky to digest can be easily neutralized by soaking in salt water and low temperature dehydrating. The combination of minerals and heat works to break down irritating compounds, while preserving the beneficial fats and proteins. Many traditional cultures intuitively practiced these preparation methods using seawater and the sun, and passed this knowledge down through generations. The tools and techniques of modern science have unabled us to see in an even more detailed way, just how profoundly soaking increases the bioavailability of important nutrients (notably the treasured B vitamins) and activates helpful enzymes that increase nutrient absorption. Unfortunately, this tedious process is cumbersome and costly for large-scale manufacturers, and has been largely lost amidst the packaged convenience foods available today.
How do I soak raw nuts and seeds?
As strange as it initially sounds, soaking nuts and seeds is not difficult. Luckily the process of soaking is essentially the same for whatever type of nut or seed you chose to prepare, although the timing varies slightly to accommodate for differences in fat composition, size, texture, etc. Traditional soaked nuts and seeds, are made by following these basic steps:
1. Measure out 4 cups of raw, unsalted, organic nuts/seeds into a medium sized bowl
2. Cover with filtered water so that nuts are submerged
3. Add 1-2 tablespoons unrefined salt
4. Allow to stand covered on the counter for about 7 hours, or overnight
5. Rinse nuts to remove salt residue and spread out in single layer on a rack to dehydrate.
6. Dry at a low temperature (generally no higher than 150°F, although there are exceptions) in dehydrator or oven for 12-24 hours or until nuts are slightly crispy.
These steps are adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. If you want more information on this and other traditional food topics, I highly recommend getting a copy of her book. Also, see the pretty guide below for specifics regarding popular nut/seed varieties:
Do all types of nuts and seeds need to be soaked?
This question is a controversial one, as people have different opinions, traditions and information to support their claims on whether to soak or not. I won't pretend to have all the answers, but in my experience and based on the research I have read, the above nuts stand up well to soaking, while other varieties of nuts and seeds just don't. For example, flax seeds turn into a mucilaginous goo in water, and brazil nuts don't always soak well due to their high fat content. Peanuts can also be soaked, however I didn't include them as they should be consumed sparingly due to inflammatory and allergenic potential.
What about sprouting?
The practice of sprouting takes things even a step past soaking. By completing several cycles of soaking, rinsing, draining and air exposure over a 1-4 period, certain seeds will enter a state of germination in which physical sprouts actually appear. This extent of germination is highly beneficial as it not only reduces enzyme inhibitors, but increases the healthy enzyme content six fold. Sprouting is not possible with all varieties of nuts however, ands occurs far more readily in seeds, legumes and grains. Raw and nonirradiated pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are all good candidates for the sprouting process. If you are up for the slightly more involved procedure of sprouting, which I haven't covered in this post, I recommended reading pages 114-115 of Nourishing Traditions.
Does everyone need to soak their nuts and seeds?
As much as I would like to jot down an exuberant "yes, of course!" here and move on from this question, I realize that things aren't always that simple. Soaking nuts can be time consuming, and it is important to know that the process is worth investing in. Apart from all of the scientific jargon and historical tales offering sing-songy praise to soaked nuts, it is really personal experience that will help you to decide if this method is helpful to you. And I can't help but add that I have a feeling it will be.
Generally, a robust and healthy digestive system can tolerate a certain amount of phytic acid and a varied diet will compensate for the actions of enzyme inhibitors without a problem. However, if you consume many high-phytate foods or use a lot of nut flours or legumes in cooking, then soaking will prove very useful. Many individuals don't even realize that they have trouble digesting raw nuts until they have nibbled up a handful of properly prepared ones. Plus, it becomes hard to resist the amplified taste and crispy texture that soaked nuts and seeds take on; but that is beside the point.
The following questions will help you decide if soaking nuts is worth a try:
- Do you ever experience low belly pain after eating nuts, seeds or foods that contain them?
- Do you ever notice pieces of nuts in your stool the day after eating them?
- Do you eat a significant amount of phytate containing foods- such as grains, beans, nuts and seeds?
- Do you struggle to consume enough minerals and B-vitamins in your diet?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you will likely benefit from soaking and drying nuts prior to chomping on 'em.
Are roasted nuts okay?
Roasted nuts are not the same as gently soaked nuts. Although their warm, smoky flavor may seem appealing, commercially roasted nuts are flash-fried in cheap, rancid oils, while dry roasted nuts are exposed to exceedingly high temperatures that denature the nutrients and cause the breakdown of fats, increasing free radical capacity. As you can see, the soaking process is much more careful, involving no weird chemicals or destructive heat shocks.
Are organic nuts always better?
As with most fresh food items, organic nuts are preferable to minimize pesticide risk and to support a framework of sustainable agricultural. Yet unfortunately less than 1% of U.S. tree nut farmland is certified organic, so hunting down organic nuts can be both difficult and expensive. There is largely inconsistent published data on the amount of pesticide residue present in the nuts after being hulled. Because the nuts are shelled and have a small surface area, some experts believe that they are at least partially protected from the dangers of pesticides and not of dire concern. However, others argue that nuts and seeds are apt to absorb pesticides readily due to their high oil content, and that the amount of pesticides used in nut growing has been consistently on the rise in recent years. Add to that the fact that non-organic nuts are often treated with fumigants (gases to kill bugs) after they are picked, and it is easy to see why some are wary of them.
What if I don't have a dehydrator?
It is important to dry out nuts and seeds at a low temperature in order to preserve the greatest amount of natural enzymes and fragile unsaturated fatty acids possible. 150° F is the maximum heat you would want to apply, although temperatures around 110° F are truly best. While dehydrators are ideal for the job, they can be expensive. Not to fear: if you don't have a coveted stainless steel dehydrators decorating your counter, it is certainly possible to use the oven for drying. Keep in mind that most ovens come preset with a low temperature of 175-200° F, so you may have to search for the oven manual and figure out how to down-regulate the base temperature. A stand-alone oven thermometer may be helpful for monitoring purposes.
Can I buy pre-soaked or sprouted nuts anywhere?
If you don’t want to spend time hunting down organic nuts, soaking, drying or sprouting them yourself, I recommend Better Than Roasted Nuts, Seeds and Nut Butters. These exquisite products begin with premium nuts and seeds that are raw, whole, and certified organic. They are then hand sorted, soaked, rinsed, and dried at a low temperature, not exceeding 108° F, to preserve the temperature-sensitive enzymes and nutrients. When possible, the nuts and seeds are also sprouted. It is rare to find such a delectable and tremendously healthy product on the market today, but wonderful to know that it does actually exist! You can find Better Than Roasted Nuts and other traditionally prepared food sources in the Weston A Price Shopping Guide.