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Why the claims made for activated nuts don't stack up

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They seem to be all the rage, but is there anything to suggest activated nuts are better for our health?

QUESTION“Activated” nuts seem to be all the rage. I started soaking nuts overnight for breakfast, so they’re still crunchy enough that I’m forced to eat them slowly but they don’t break my teeth. Is there anything to suggest activated nuts are better for our health?

ANSWERAccording to internet wisdom, nuts are as good as useless if they’re not activated. The theory goes that when you activate nuts, by soaking them in water for an extended period, “it kick-starts a germination and sprouting process that neutralises the phytic acid, brings the ‘nut to life’ and helps make it more digestible”, according to the I Quit Sugar website. And fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – you can buy already activated nuts (and nut milks) for twice the price of standard nuts.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Rachel Brown, an associate professor in the University of Otago’s Human Nutrition Department, has dedicated much of her research career to investigating the health effects of eating nuts. Of late, the question on people’s lips at Brown’s seminars and webinars has been “should I activate my nuts?”

At first, she had no idea what they were on about. “So, I thought, I’ll look that up.” When she found there was no existing research on the benefits or otherwise of activated nuts, she decided to do her own with the help of a funding grant.

Brown’s research team looked at the effect of so-called activation on the phytate levels in nuts, and on the gastrointestinal health of nut eaters, “because on websites it says [activation] helps with that”.

Nuts contain substantial amounts of phytate, a compound that binds minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium, forming a complex that interferes with absorption and digestion of the minerals.

Cereal grains and legumes also contain appreciable amounts of phytate. Studies have found soaking is an effective method of reducing phytate levels in cereal grains and legumes, which may explain why people have assumed the same process would improve the nutritional profile of nuts.

Brown used a popular method found on the internet for activating nuts, involving soaking them in water for 12 hours, then drying them for 24 hours at 60°C. “We also added salt, because that’s what most of the protocols said, and we did a procedure where we didn’t add salt to see if it made a difference.”

Aware that pounding or grinding grains and legumes before soaking produces greater reductions in phytate levels, Brown’s team tried similar mechanical methods in their study.

The bottom line is no appreciable difference was found in the nuts’ phytate levels after activation, says Brown. What’s more, although chopping the nuts before activating them resulted in slightly greater losses of phytate, this was mirrored by similar losses of minerals that also leached out. That means there was no change in the phytate-to-mineral ratio of the nuts.

“So from our experience, if you soak whole nuts, as most people are doing, you don’t get rid of appreciable amounts of phytate. It wasn’t really a positive overall result.”

What’s more, there were no appreciable differences in gastrointestinal symptoms reported by study participants when consuming activated versus standard nuts, which Brown and colleagues note in a report on their study published last September in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Clearly, then, what’s good for legumes and grains isn’t necessarily good for nuts.

Brown is concerned that widespread misinformation about activated nuts may lead people to eat fewer of them, because of the time-consuming nature of the process. And in the mistaken belief that activated nuts are better for them, they may end up spending twice as much on processed varieties than they would on standard ones.

The good news for your health and wallet, therefore, is that the claims made for activated nuts don’t stack up.

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.