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I used to think that only the larger seeds and nuts needed soaking or sprouting before eating them. But the more I’ve learned about phytic acid (and lectins), the more my eyes have been opened: High phytic acid exists in all seeds and nuts; and although it seems tricky to soak seeds like flax or chia, we’ll talk about easy solutions! Remember: Soaked seeds are more nutritious and gentle! You can read more about soaking and dehydrating both nuts and seeds, to make “crispy nuts” here, both how and why.
What Do We Mean by “Soaked”?
We are not talking about making sprouts, like the alfalfa sprouts that used to be common on sandwiches, although the terms soaking and sprouting are sometimes used interchangeably; and soaking can be the first step of germination. Soaked refers to a soaking process that creates an enzymatic change within seeds. Dried seeds start out dormant, protecting themselves in nature from a potentially harsh winter. In this state, which is raw, seeds are indigestible and high in phytic acid. While health food enthusiasts tout the health benefits of eating raw nuts or seeds, they are misinformed. Our bodies can not access the seeds’ nutrition in their raw state, and the seeds wreak havoc on our digestive mechanism over time.
By soaking seeds in salt water, or another acidic medium, we are emulating or copying what happens in nature each spring. In spring, the soil becomes more acidic. This signals seeds to wake up and sprout, to no longer protect themselves, to send forth a shoot. Less protected from harsh, cold temperatures, means a reduction in phytic acid and less protection from our digestive mechanisms. Our bodies can easily digest a living vegetable instead of a dormant seed.
Occasionally, as with sunflower seeds, for example, you will actually see the germination or sprouting begin (which is the next step that naturally occurs from soaking); but our goal is the initial enzymatic process, and in most cases you will not see sprouts.
As I share below in more detail, seeds can be soaked in salt water, but they also transform in probiotic, acidic liquids, like kefir, yogurt, apple cider vinegar and sauerkraut juice. These mediums can all be used to make seeds healthier!
Which Seeds Need to be Soaked
First off, the bad news: They all do, if eaten with any regularity or in any significant quantity.
Of course, small amounts of unsoaked seeds eaten only occasionally will probably not bother most people. But if you have leaky gut, any autoimmune issues or any kind of digestive or mental distress, including brain fog, please don’t hesitate to start some new “pre-digestion” methods. Soaking is worth the time it takes, and the methods become easy and automatic the more you do them.
Noteworthy: Seeds are often soaked by gardeners before planting. This trend gives us further insight: Gardeners soak seeds to get them ready to germinate, to signal to the seed that it’s time to start growing, imitating either the rains of spring or the wet acidity of an animal’s stomach. Gardeners want to ensure that their seeds will break their dormancy. This practical step tells us that seeds should be soaked. Soaking is what signals to a seed that it should become digestible, a living food.
Let’s discuss most edible seeds individually:
While very popular in health food circles, chia seeds do come wrought with phytic acid, lectins, phytoestrogens and insoluble fiber (source 1, 2, 3). Insert Sorry Face here. Yet, it’s true. When I use chia seeds NOW, as opposed to when I didn’t know, I use them as a tool (for example, a small amount in baking), and/or I ferment them first, which is like soaking, but more thorough: Fermenting is better and more effective at reducing the antinutrients in seeds.
Here are a couple of approaches:
- Sourdough: Make a baked good recipe, but add in a fermented product. This can be sauerkraut juice, kefir, yogurt etc. Make the recipe ahead of time, and allow it to sit at room temperature for 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge overnight or even for 2-3 days. This method works best when your original recipe already has some liquid that can be replaced by the probiotic liquid: Some water or milk in the original recipe gets replaced by the acidic medium or partially replaced; 1/4 cup of the acidic medium is usually enough to ferment the whole batter.
- Make a base ferment, similar to a chia egg: Instead of mixing water with chia seeds to make a chia egg (egg substitute), mix kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut juice or another fermented product with the chia. Allow it to sit at room temperature for 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge overnight or for up to 6 days. Use a scoop of this base in any of your recipes, instead of using raw chia seeds or chia eggs. (Use a blender to more easily incorporate them into your batter.) The seeds in the fermented base will be predigested to varying degrees depending on how long they culture. The ratio for a soaked (probiotic) chia egg is 1 tablespoon chia or chia meal mixed well with 3 tablespoons probiotic liquid. Larger batches of this kind of base can be made as well: 1/3 cup chia seeds to 1 cup probiotic liquid, for example.
- Make an overnight porridge by combining probiotic yogurt or kefir with chia seeds. Here’s an Overnight Chia Porridge recipe that uses this concept.
- Here’s a Grain-free Paleo Sourdough Bread recipe that uses the first method described above.
Similar to chia, flax seeds are tricky to soak because of the mucilaginous coating that happens when they get wet. Also, most of us are used to just throwing them into baked goods or smoothies. It’s hard to create new habits when old routines are deeply entrenched. But flax seeds should be soaked, and they are high not only in phytic acid, but also in phytoestrogens (source). So the more they’re predigested, the more balancing they become: less problematic to our hormone levels.
Best ways to soak or sprout flax seeds:
- Make your recipe using a fermented product. This can be sauerkraut juice, kefir, yogurt etc. Make the recipe ahead of time, and allow it to sit at room temperature for 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge overnight or for 2-3 days.
- Make a base ferment, similar to a flax egg: Instead of mixing water with flax, mix kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut juice or another fermented product with the flax. Allow it to sit at room temperature for 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge overnight or for up to 6 days. Use a scoop of this base in any of your recipes, instead of raw flax seeds or flax eggs. The seeds in the fermented base will be predigested. The ratio for a soaked (probiotic) flax egg is 1 tablespoon flax or flax seed meal to 3 tablespoons probiotic liquid.
- Here’s a great Butternut Squash Muffin recipe with which you can practice this method. Simply add 1/4 cup of probiotic food/beverage, and allow the batter to sit out for 4 hours. Then refrigerate overnight or for a couple of days, before scooping it into your muffin tin and baking!
Poppy seeds are often ground and soaked for culinary purposes, to increase their flavor, or to add texture to a stew. (I used them here in a traditional Middle Eastern stew in this way.)
Poppy seeds are also unique because of their codeine/morphine content, which can actually affect the health and behavior of both kids and adults if eaten in large amounts, or if given to a baby (source). Soaking poppy seeds in water for just five minutes, and then discarding the soaking water reduces their codeine/morphine content by 50%!
For the small amount of poppy seeds most of us eat, it’s not necessary, in my opinion, to reduce their antinutrients. However, if they’re allowed to ferment in any kind of a souring batter, that process will make poppy seeds more nutritious and certainly have a benefit, also making them gentler on our digestion. So if you can, do.
For years I didn’t understand why the Weston A. Price Foundation discouraged the consumption of hemp seeds, until finally I was able to ask Sally Fallon herself, through a mutual friend. I got a good answer: polyunsaturated fats (source). Our bodies do not benefit from polyunsaturated fats (source), and hemp seeds are full of them. So really, we should eat hemp seeds rarely. When we do eat them, yes, they’re high in phytic acid, and they could be soaked in salt water, then rinsed, or put into a fermenting batter. See the section below on pine nuts and larger seeds for the salt-water method and ratios. Because hemp seeds are so small, they need a shorter soaking time of just two to four hours.
Sesame seeds may be small, common and popular, but they also have a big secret: They are higher in phytic acid than any other food! Sesame seeds should always be purchased hulled, and/or they should go through some form of pre-digestion before being consumed. Otherwise, sesame seeds rob us of our nutrients. That’s what phytic acid does: It binds with minerals from our food and robs us of that nutrition.
Sesame seeds are also high in lignans, which are a class of phytoestrogens — They’re hormone altering, should not be eaten regularly or in large quantities and improve, like soy, through fermentation.
The easiest solution to both the phytic acid and the lignans in sesame seeds is to buy hulled tahini or hulled seeds, both of which have the majority of their antinutrients stripped off when the outer hull is removed. Sesame seeds or tahini may also be added to any kind of fermenting batter or fermenting nut puree (see how here) to improve their digestibility and effects on our health.
For culinary purposes, mustard seeds should always be soaked first, because the one day minimum of soaking activates an enzyme— myrosine —that gives prepared mustards their distinctive flavor (source).
Mustard seeds are comprised of 3% phytates. Rats fed mustard protein in lab studies became zinc deficient due to the excess of phytic acid (source). Of course, most of us don’t eat large amounts of mustard! But if mustard seeds are a staple in your diet, it’s noteworthy that they can cause a mineral deficiency.
If you plan to soak mustard seeds in water anyway, for culinary purposes, consider instead soaking your mustard seeds in salt water. This acid medium will further reduce phytic acid. Some mustard recipes will use apple cider vinegar for soaking; this is a good option too. You can even soak mustard seeds overnight in probiotic whey (the liquid drained from good quality yogurt) or probiotic pickle juice. Best yet is to make fermented mustard! Here’s a good, basic recipe.
Perhaps surprisingly, fenugreek seeds, which we often see as an ingredient in curries, are very high in phytic acid (source). Fenugreek seeds, which have been studied quite a bit for their phytic acid content, are used medicinally for many conditions, including: digestive issues, blood sugar regulation, to reduce inflammation, to increase milk supply in lactating women, to increase exercise performance and to increase libido. Sprouting is a common way of reducing phytic acid in fenugreek; and it’s proven to be effective (source). Soaking has also been shown to increase the seeds’ nutrition and to reduce their phytic acid significantly (source).
Fortunately, we have no shortage of information on how to make fenugreek seeds healthier! Soak the seeds, ferment the seeds, put them overnight in yogurt or kefir, make a tincture with them using apple cider vinegar, put them in kombucha. Boiling and roasting the seeds also reduces their phytic acid, but not as much as soaking, sprouting or fermenting — just as we would expect! (source)
Pine Nuts, Sunflower Seeds, Watermelon Seeds and Pumpkin Seeds
Pine nuts, sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds and pumpkin seeds are all seeds that need to be soaked. Their soaking method mimics how we soak nuts: For every 4 cups of raw seeds, cover with room temperature, filtered water by two inches, and 2 tsp. sea salt. Stir well to dissolve the salt. Leave out overnight at room temperature to soak. Drain them in a colander; and rinse them well. If you suspect old seeds, or possible rancidity, or mold, add 1/2 teaspoon vitamin C powder to the salted soaking water. This will kill any potential mold.
The seeds can now be dehydrated or used wet in recipes. Dehydrating and then carefully roasting these seeds further reduces their phytic acid.
Also, see my cookbook here, where these seeds are always soaked as part of the recipe. The cookbook features mostly nut and seed-based baked goods, prepared with predigestion in mind.
Technically speaking, all grains, legumes and nuts are seeds. Therefore, they all benefit from soaking. Most grains benefit from soaking overnight in a water and apple cider vinegar solution. Most legumes improve from a long soak in plain water; some need to be fermented. Nuts are best soaked in the same salt water solution outlined above for the larger seeds.
What about the tiny culinary seeds like caraway, cumin and fennel? These seeds are estrogenic, but historically have not been soaked; yet oils and extracts from these seeds have healing properties. So they are perhaps the exception to all other seeds (source). Of course, nobody eats very many caraway seeds; so any phytic acid they contain is somewhat negligible. Pomegranate seeds are not soaked either.
Lastly, in response to a reader’s question: milk thistle seeds. Milk thistle seeds increase estrogen for some women. Anyone with endometriosis, or at higher risk for breast, uterine or ovarian cancers should avoid this herb (source). I personally started taking milk thistle seed powder and quickly found it was estrogenic, as my cystic breast tissue returned overnight! For those who would like to take this herb, I highly suggest fermenting it, as fermentation reduces phytoestrogens in estrogenic seeds. Soak the seeds for four hours in probiotic yogurt, and then place in the fridge overnight. Small batches of the soaked seeds could be made weekly.
One more recipe…
Here’s one more recipe for fermented (sourdough) batter. It’s a waffle batter recipe and gives you another opportunity to ferment your seeds, by providing a batter recipe that already incorporates the concepts discussed in this article. You can add your favorite seeds to the batter before it sours.