Tag Archives: saponins

Antinutrients, the Antithesis of True Paleo | The Paleo Diet

We all know what nutrients are. The three macronutrients, fat, protein and carbohydrates, along with vitamins, minerals and water are the six essential nutrients we need to thrive.   Basically, nutrients are substances that provide nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life.1

Everything we eat and drink falls into one of those categories.

Unfortunately, the modern day diet also includes another category of substances that are often eaten even more than the nutritious type of food: antinutrients.

A naturally occurring substance, like saponins or phytates, found in plant-derived foods, antinutrients interfere with absorption or proper functioning of nutrients in the body.

Antinutrients are compounds that are produced by plants as part of their defense mechanism.2 These compounds that protect plants from pesticides and chemicals in the soil, have a damaging effect to our gut, since we are unable to digest them.

Imagine the lining of the intestines to be akin to a fine mesh barrier, which remains intact when we eat fresh vegetables and fruit, wild proteins and good fats. Microscopic tearing of the fine mesh over time leads to a condition called leaky gut.  With that delicate lining perforated, the filtration functionality is compromised, and harmful particles like bacteria, virus, and waste, can begin escaping into the bloodstream.

Antinutrients are able to bind to nutrients. So the next time you’re springing for a piping hot gluten-free focaccia roll alongside your wild salmon, steamed broccoli drizzled with olive oil and freshly squeezed lime, take a step back and remember the antinutrients in the bread are targeting your gut.

You might not notice anything immediately like a stomachache or other GI distress, but the start of inflammation in the body has started and it doesn’t always stay in the gut. Symptoms can manifest throughout the body, ranging from headaches, mental fogginess, joint pain, onset or exacerbation of autoimmune conditions…just to list a handful of the maladies that can ensue.

If you continue to eat in this manner, it doesn’t stop at inflammation. Infection among other medical problems can develop, proving to be frustrating at best and debilitating at worst.

To make matters worse, many people may experience a scenario similar to what I did, during a lifelong ‘mysterious GI illness,’ during which I was (mis)diagnosed as having IBS, Crohn’s and colitis. The physicians, experts, and/or specialists seldom ask what we’re eating, but rather suggest the condition is naturally occurring, where diet doesn’t affect our long term health and wellness.

In fact, while I thought my diet was healthy with whole-grain bread for fiber, and beans as a good protein option, I was advised to avoid foods that were ‘hard to digest’ like vegetables and to increase ‘easy to digest foods’ like saltine crackers and dry toast. Sound familiar?

Between desperation, not wanting to be sick and in pain every day at age 24, and exhaustively researching the web, common sense convinced me food was the culprit. Going gluten-free was the first step, but not the end all be all.

The Paleo Pandora’s Box opened with Dr. Cordain’s research and learnings. Manufacturers who touted their foods were oh-so-healthy-gluten-free, were actually oh-so-not. Their ingredient sources fell into the same category as wheat.

Paleo eating,” or mimicking the food groups our ancestors ate with foods we can easily source in our grocery stores, farmer’s markets or our own backyards, proved to be the cure-all: complete cessation of all GI issues, fat loss, improved sleep, improved mental focus, improved training and racing and reaching that healthy state of being I’d coveted for so long, in such a short amount of time.

Even though I may have seemed healthy– a triathlete, a personal fitness trainer and a very balanced eater- it wasn’t until I took away the foods loaded with those toxic antinutrients that I was able to truly be healthy, inside and out.

That was back in 2005. Ever since my passion and enthusiasm is unwavering when it comes to helping people understand how much they can empower themselves by learning how crucial it is to eat real food, and avoid the ‘food’ we cannot breakdown.

True Paleo living is not to be viewed as a pity party, or ‘woe is me, I can’t eat gluten.’ Rather, it’s a gift.  We have the ability to choose what to put into our mouths, and directly impact how we feel.

Why make any other choice?!



[1] “Nutrients.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. Feb. 2015.

[2] “Antinutrients.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. Feb. 2015.

Is Mesquite Bean Flour Arguably Paleo?

Photo by Robb Hannawacker, while working for Joshua Tree National Park, via Wikimedia Commons

Mesquite is a different subfamily of the “legumes” the Mimosoideae not the fabaceae, and the food part derived from mesquite is not the seed, but rather the pulpy part of the pod wall. Ethnobotanist Richard Felger claimed indigenous populations could obtain their 50g of protein per day from birds, lizards, snakes etc., but preferred the energy for their bodies, provided by the flour milled from the mesquite pods, not seeds. Using a stone gyratory crusher, they would grind off the pulpy mesocarp, moisten the high sugar content flour into “cakes,” and take them on hunting trips. The leathery endocarp containing the hard seed was discarded.

While the article Beans and Legumes: Are They Paleo is very thorough and excellent, the following studies and papers suggest eliminating the seeds eliminates trypsin inhibitors in mesquite bean flour, flatulence producing triglycerides, phytates by ten times less, and a host of other issues that are present in the seeds. Furthermore, carbon 14 data supports mesquite flour consumption approximately 10,000 years before present day.

Felker, Peter, Takeoka, Gary, Dao, Lan. “Pod Mesocarp Flour of North and South American Species of Leguminous Tree Prosopis (Mesquite): Composition and Food Applications.” Food Reviews International 29.1, 49-66, 2013.

Capparelli, Aylen, and Verónica Lema. “Recognition of Post-harvest Processing of Algarrobo (Prosopis Spp.) as Food from Two Sites of Northwestern Argentina: An Ethnobotanical and Experimental Approach for Desiccated Macroremains – Springer.” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 3.1 (2011): 71-92.Springer Link. Springer-Verlag, 01 Mar. 2011.

Ortega-Nieblas, Magdalena, Luz Vázquez-Moreno, and María R. Robles-Burgueño. “Protein Quality and Antinutritional Factors of Wild Legume Seeds from the Sonoran Desert.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 44.10 (1996): 3130-132. Web.

As part of my Ph.D. in 1977, I worked on the protein and amino acid composition of mesquite pods and seeds and have published more than 100 papers since then, in addition to giving copious talks to international audiences in North and South America, Africa and India/Pakistan.

Takeoka, Gary. “A Review of Flavor, Aroma and Color Enhancement in Gluten Free and Conventional Pastries, Waffles and Dairy Desserts with Mesquite Pod Mesocarp Flour.” Presentation. Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). Western Regional Research Center, ARS, USDA. 13-16 July 2013: Web.

Certainly fresh fruits, veggies and meats are better nutritionally than mesquite flour, but for conventional diets, mesquite is used at only 12-15% to add flavor and aroma in baked goods at low concentrations.

Shouldn’t mesquite bean flour be approved for Paleo Diets?

Thank you for this courtesy,

Peter Felker, Ph.D.

Dr. Cordain’s Response:

Dear Peter,

Many thanks for sending the papers on mesquite beans. You clearly are the international expert on this topic, and I respect your knowledge of a fascinating topic. I appreciate you getting me up to speed on the nutritional aspects of this traditional food which clearly has been consumed in the Americas for tens of thousands of years. I read the papers carefully, and cross checked your voluminous references. Jennie Brand Miller is a close colleague and co-author on a number of papers — she did the glycemic index experiments with this food. Given its reported high sucrose content, I am a bit surprised that it did not have a higher GI.

Clearly, traditional agricultural societies in the Americas and Asian utilized this plant as food on a regular basis, but this evidence does not necessarily mean that habitual consumption is necessarily healthful. I see that the phytic acid concentration is high in mesquite bean flour. This characteristic will necessarily bind (in vivo) all the divalent ions (iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium) you have reported in a dose dependent manner making them of low biological availability in the human gut.

It is also a bit problematic that phytohemoagglutinin (PHA) has been detected in Prosopis species when this lectin is normally only present in Phaseolus species. Hence, I suspect that there likely is a specific lectin, yet to be molecularly classified that is present in Prosopis which agglutinates RBCs but which probably is not PHA. To date, animal experiments have shown that PHA breeches the gut barrier and interacts unfavorably with the immune and GI systems. It would be interesting to determine if the agglutinating factor in Prosopsis also has similar in vivo physiological characteristics as Phaseolus PHA.

Note that heating/cooking does not necessarily destroy all of the antinutrient factors in legumes, particularly saponins. Unless, I missed something, I did not see the saponin content specifically of the pod of Prosopis species reported anywhere in the references you reported. It is almost certain that the saponin content of Prosopsis is high. The combination of lectin, saponin, phytate and trypsin inhibitors is an evolutionary strategy virtually all legumes have evolved to prevent predation by insects, microorganisms and birds and mammals. The degree of toxicity ranges from mild to lethal and generally produce adverse physiological effects in a chronic and dose dependent manner (see Arpad Pustzai’s life’s work).

Although consumption of Prosopsis species products dates back to at least 10,000 years, generally consumption of this legume or any legume cannot be done in their raw state, and requires cooking (eg. the advent of fire production at will). As I have pointed out in an extensive publication, “Ancestral Fire Production: Implications for Contemporary Paleo Diets,” the ability of produce fire is a very recent invention in the 2.5 million history of our genus Homo. Hence, all legumes would not have been a part of the dietary repertoire that shaped the current human genome. Accordingly, humans are not well adapted to legumes, even with cooking.

One of the nutritional obstacles that pre-agricultural people faced was the physiological protein ceiling which our group has extensively described in a paper we published in 2000 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Basically, protein becomes toxic for a variety of physiological mechanisms when ingested at about 35-40% of the total eucaloric intake. Wild game worldwide is typically very lean, and muscle meat of wild animals averages about 80% protein and 20% fat by energy. Accordingly, if you or any human were only to have wild game muscle meat as your only food source, you would rapidly (within a few days) develop protein toxicity which ultimately causes death — you would be better off starving or fasting. The solution to the physiological protein ceiling (which all pre-agricultural people must have inferred) was to dilute the protein portion of game animals with either fat or carbohydrate. Since animal carcasses only contain tiny amounts of carbohydrate, then you are dealing with a food mixture of protein and fat. But the problem is that wild game have little fat. However, with selective butchering and carcass consumption, the fattier portions (brain, marrow, tongue, perinephral fat, mesenteric fat etc.) can be consumed and the leaner portions eaten at physiologically tolerable levels. A caveat to this problem is that larger mammals contain more body fat than smaller mammals. Hence bison would be preferred to squirrels or field mice to negate the effects of excessive protein.

A final solution is to dilute the high protein content of wild animals with carbohydrate from plant foods. The problem here is that most wild plant foods are generally inedible to humans unless cooked and processed, and most edible plant foods are only edible seasonally. There are obviously notable exceptions, but until the ability to start fire at will was developed, the carbohydrate from plant foods would have contributed only a small percentage of the total yearly diet (see our papers on the topic available at my website for the references)

So how does this concept relate to Prosopis? Any plant food which is a good source of starch, sugar and or fat would have been exploited by indigenous people during the Neolithic or slightly earlier to offset the physiological protein ceiling. By cooking and processing formerly inedible foods (eg. legumes) using recently invented technology (fire production at will) previously unexploited foods could now be consumed. The problem is that cooking and processing still does not fully remove antinutrients. Apparently, more work needs to be done to fully and completely analyze the antinutrients in Prosopis and then do both in vitro and in vivo testing in animal and human models.

There clearly are better food choices from a nutritional perspective, and that is my point. It’s not that we can’t eat cooked Prosopis, but rather fresh meats, fish, seafood, eggs, organ meats, fresh fruits and veggies are better choices to mesquite beans.


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

The Sprouted Grain Conundrum | The Paleo Diet

I am wondering your collective thoughts on the sprouted grain? Are these still a big no as well? My understanding has been that sprouted grains differ greatly than non-sprouted?

Dr. Cordain’s Response:

Yes, sprouted grains and beans are a much healthier option. When we ‘sprout grains’ we are allowing the seed to germinate and a shoot will emerge from the seed. This is the part that is cut off and eaten. Therefore, the seed itself is not actually consumed (as is the case with whole grains and wheat flours where the seed proteins and starches are milled and eaten). Since lectins are packaged along with the seed to protect against predation, once the seed sprouts, the lectin concentration diminishes within a couple days. In a week’s time the sprouts should have no residual lectins.

Gliadin and glutenin are the dominate proteins located in the endosperm of the seed. The starchy endosperm is located alongside the embryo (germ) within the seed, and provides nutrients the embryo needs as it is sprouting and growing. Therefore, there should be no gliadin or glutenin proteins in the sprout, but rather primarily non-digestible cellulous (dietary fiber). One can consume sprouted grains and beans without fear of anti-nutrients. However, keep in mind that these are still nutritionally poor in terms of micronutrients. Leafy greens and other vegetables contribute high fiber AND a higher concentration of nutrients-grains are still ‘nutritional lightweights’.

I would like to amend my earlier statement: We can consume GRAIN sprouts without fear of anti-nutrients. However, legume sprouts still appear to contain considerable concentrations of saponins–the secondary compounds responsible for increasing gut permeability. Alfalfa sprouts (which are actually in the pea family) have an especially high concentration.


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

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