Anti-Nutrients: What They Are and What They Are For

Anti-Nutrients: What They Are and What They Are For

Anti-nutrients: what are they?

In the list of nutrients found on the labels , the vitamins , minerals , fats, proteins and carbohydrates contained in a particular food are listed  . Also present with them are anti-nutrients which, just like nutrients, are natural compounds found primarily in legumes , nuts , seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains . We define “anti-nutrients” – or antinutritional factors – some substances naturally present in many plant foods . They are produced by the plant, in which they perform various functions and are protective against moulds, bacteria and predator attacks.

As the name suggests, often taken as a negative prefix, anti-nutrients are the exact opposite of nutrients. These are compounds that reduce the absorption of essential nutrients  in the body and decrease the nutritional value of food.

Harmful or beneficial?

Anti-nutrients can prevent calcium , iron , and zinc from being absorbed , but are not of much concern to a healthy person. In fact, some anti-nutrients may be beneficial to your health .

The adjective “antinutrients” has been attributed to them due to the fact that they can hinder the absorption of some nutrients, but in recent years, with the most recent scientific discoveries, this role has been significantly reduced. In fact, these substances are not negative for health, but, on the contrary, they are beneficial and make it possible to prevent and reduce the symptoms of many pathologies .


Fibers are anti – nutrients, contained in most plant foods . Carrying out the characterizing function of anti-nutrients, fiber reduces the assimilation of minerals and the appearance of intestinal problems related to fermentation and gas formation .

In reality,  fiber is an essential component of the daily diet and should never be lacking in a healthy and balanced diet. The positive effects associated with fiber intake are many:

  • increased satiety
  • regularity of intestinal transit
  • blood sugar stabilization
  • reduction of the risk of the formation of diverticula and hemorrhoids
  • improvement of the intestinal bacterial flora
  • cholesterol reduction


Tannins are antioxidant polyphenolic compounds commonly found in tea, wine , and some fruits such as pomegranate and berries . Although they are confirmed to inhibit the absorption of iron  and zinc and also some vitamins, research published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition  found that tannins have the potential to reduce the risk of certain cancers and may also  boost the immune system. .


Primarily found in whole grains , lectins can be toxic when eaten raw. But when cooked and processed correctly, they have therapeutic value such as supporting the immune system. It is a family of proteins found in almost all foods, especially legumes  and cereals . They bind to carbohydrates found in nature. All foods – both plant and animal – contain them. But overall, only 30% of the food we eat contains them in significant quantities.


Lignans are substances of natural origin that help maintain a  healthy heart  and  strengthen the immune system . Contained in the woody tissues of plants, in  cereals , especially in  rye , and in some vegetables ( carrots ,  broccoli ,  cabbage ,  strawberries  and  wild berries ), they are phenolic compounds formed by the union of phenylpropane molecules. Lignans are found primarily in nuts, seeds and grains and have antioxidant properties . This antioxidant effectit may benefit your health by reducing your risk of cancer  and heart disease .


This anti-nutrient, found mainly in seeds, cereals, beans and legumes, reduces the absorption of calcium , magnesium and zinc during digestion , thus decreasing their assimilation by the human body.

There are recommendations on the use of plants containing phytates which allow to minimize this effect (in particular the association with vitamin C ), only in cases of actual iron deficiency . Even in these cases, it should however be considered that the human body is able to increase the absorption of iron when necessary, without resorting to particular precautions.

A simple solution to adopt to counteract the action of phytates on the body is soaking whole grains and legumes (which decreases the quantity of these anti-nutrients) and then cooking them with clean water for better digestibility .

However, phytates also have many positive effects : they are antioxidants, anticancer, they prevent osteoporosis , regulate blood sugar levels , prevent the formation of kidney stones , facilitate the expulsion of potentially harmful heavy metals such as cadmium and lead .

Goitrogenic substances

Some vegetables contain goitrogenic substances, which interfere with iodine metabolism by decreasing thyroid function . These are mainly vegetables of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae family (including cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower ). The substances responsible for this effect are called ” isothiocyanates “.

However , these vegetables are a real concentrate of health : in fact, isothiocyanates have an antitumor effect well documented in scientific literature.

Foods that contain anti-nutrients

Where are anti-nutrients found? In legumes, grain cereals, almonds , hazelnuts and peanuts . To neutralize them, it is essential to subject the food to  a simple treatment . For example, legumes should be soaked  in plenty of water  after thorough washing, for a period ranging from 8 to 24 hours. Finally, you need to rinse  the beans or lentils  under running water and proceed with cooking. Finally, anti-nutrients can also be found in  walnuts, almonds and peanuts .



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