When activated almonds popped up a few years ago, many of us laughed it off and resumed eating our regular nuts. But the nut trend hasn't slowed down and it's hard to ignore the health claims and benefits -- such as helping digestion and enhancing nutrient absorption. We're even seeing 'sprouted' grains hit the market.
But are activated nuts, legumes and grains all they're cracked up to be? Are they better for us, or do regular nuts and grains do the trick? Here's an explainer.
What are activated nuts?
If you're wondering what on earth activated nuts are, don't worry. The process sounds fancier and more complex than it is.
"Activated nuts, legumes and grains have been soaked in water and salt for a period of time, usually 7-12 hours," dietitian Robbie Clark told HuffPost Australia. "Activation stimulates the early germination and sprouting process within the nut, seed, legume or grain."
Once soaked, nuts are then dehydrated at a low temperature (about 65°C) for 12-24 hours before eating. Soaked grains and legumes, however, don't require dehydrating and can be cooked and eaten after soaking.
What's the point of soaking and activating nuts, legumes and grains?
There are a few reasons people activate nuts, legumes and grains: a) it can reduce phytates, b) thereby increasing bioavailability of nutrients within these foods, and c) the foods can be gentler on the digestive system.
"Soaking the nuts, grains or legumes increases the nutrient value of the food, along with breaking down the problematic compounds that help enhance their digestibility," Clark said.
The compounds which can interfere with the absorption of nutrients are phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. More on these below.
"Eating large amounts of raw nuts may place extra strain on your digestive system and may cause things like bloating, cramping and nausea. By activating your food, you can not only enhance absorption of nutrients but improve digestion."
A note on phytic acid
While unsoaked nuts do contain phytic acid, which can reduce our ability to absorb some nutrients within the food, this isn't a reason to abandon all non-activated nuts, seeds, legumes and grains, nutritionist Fiona Tuck and accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod explained.
"The reality is many plant-based foods, including vegetables, contain phytic acid," Tuck told HuffPost Australia.
"It's really not as simple as 'phytates are bad'," McLeod added. "Phytates can also have some really positive health benefits. They do have some anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and may help with reducing blood glucose levels and kidney stones."
When it comes to our body absorbing nutrients, McLeod also highlights that our focus should be on the way we eat foods together (such as in a salad), rather than on a singular food.
"Yes, phytates can bind to some minerals like iron, calcium and zinc, and possibly inhibit absorption, but at the same time, if you're eating vitamin C-rich foods, this can help absorption of some vitamins and minerals," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
"For example, if you have tomatoes or an apple with almonds or cashews, the vitamin C in the fruit will help the iron in those nuts to be absorbed, even without them being soaked. Acidic foods can also help break down phytates in foods, as well, so it's not necessary to avoid phytates."
What about soaking (and sprouting) legumes and grains?
Sprouting legumes and grains has become another popular trend and the process builds upon activation.
"Activating is the starting point and then they will start to sprout. For example, you can soak and activate mung beans, which will then sprout," McLeod said.
While sprouting grains and legumes is nutritious, it's not absolutely necessary. Soaking and cooking dried legumes, however, is necessary.
"Legumes such as lentils, peas and chickpeas are full of fibre, protein and essential nutrients such as folic acid (necessary for healthy DNA replication, fertility and cell health)," Tuck said.
"Soaking and cooking legumes and grains helps to soften the hard outer surface, making it easier to digest and absorb nutrients, and limits bloating or tummy pain after eating.
"Sprouted legumes can be beneficial too, as the nutrients are more bioavailable, making them easier to absorb. Sprouted foods may be easier to tolerate for those with poor gut function and digestion."
Is activating nuts necessary?
While activating nuts can help nutrient absorption and aid digestion, it's again not necessary, particularly if you only eat a handful of nuts per day. Activated nuts are still a worthwhile addition to our diets, however.
"It really isn't necessary to buy activated nuts or activate your own nuts," Tuck said. "If you are continually eating a lot of phytic acid with all foods then this could potentially inhibit some nutrient absorption. However, if you are eating small amounts of nuts it is perfectly safe to eat non-activated nuts."
"Having a mix of the two is a good idea," McLeod said. "The thing to remember is that unsoaked nuts are still really nutritious. They're still good sources of healthy fats, vitamin such as vitamin E and B vitamins, fibre and protein, which you can absorb easily, even if you haven't activated your nuts."
And if it's a choice between regular nuts and no nuts at all, go for regular raw, unsalted nuts.
"Nuts are already expensive for people and so activated nuts (which are often double the price of normal nuts, if not more) are very prohibitive," McLeod said. "This is what frustrates me the most about this trend -- people are ending up not eating something really nutritious because of this."
How to activate your own nuts at home
"If cost is an issue, you can easily perform the process of activation at home, saving you a lot of money," Clark said.
- Place nuts, legumes or grains (about two cups) into a large bowl;
- Cover the food with filtered water mixed with sea salt (approximately two teaspoons of salt);
- The nuts, legumes or grains should be completely submerged in the salt water. The ingredients will absorb water as they soak and may grow mould if not kept under water.
- Depending on the food, soak for 7-12 hours;
- After soaking, strain away the excess water. Legumes and grains can be cooked and consumed at this point;
- With the nuts, slowly roast at very low heat (65°C) in an oven or dehydrator for 6-24 hours (roasting time will vary on the food you are using);
- The food is ready when they are completely dried out.
"You can activate nuts at home, however they need to be eaten within 24–48 hours after soaking and drying. The activating process can make the nuts more prone to grow harmful moulds so eat them soon after activating to avoid mould developing," Tuck said.
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