1874-0707/19 Send Orders for Reprints to firstname.lastname@example.org
DOI: 10.2174/1874070701913010068, 2019, 13, 68-76
The Open Biotechnology Journal
Content list available at: https://openbiotechnologyjournal.com
Antinutrients in Plant-based Foods: A Review
Aneta Popova1 and Dasha Mihaylova2,*
1Department of Catering and Tourism, University of Food Technologies, 26 Maritza Blvd., 4002, Plovdiv, Bulgaria
2Department of Biotechnology, University of Food Technologies, 26 Maritza Blvd., 4002, Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Abstract: Modern society has easy access to a vast informational database. The pursuit of sustainable green and healthy lifestyle leads to a series
of food choices. Therefore, it is of importance to provide reliable, comprehensive and up-to-date information about food content including both
nutritional and antinutritional elements.
Nutrients are associated with positive effects on human health. Antinutrients, on the other hand, are far less popular for the contemporary man.
They are highly bioactive, capable of deleterious effects as well as some beneficial health effects in man, and vastly available in plant-based foods.
These compounds are of natural or synthetic origin, interfere with the absorption of nutrients, and can be responsible for some mischievous effects
related to the nutrient absorption. Some of the common symptoms exhibited by a large amount of antinutrients in the body can be nausea, bloating,
headaches, rashes, nutritional deficiencies, etc. Phytates, oxalates, and lectins are few of the well-known antinutrients.
Science has acknowledged several ways in order to alter the negative influence antinutrients exhibiting on human health. Mechanical, thermal and
biochemical approaches act synergistically to provide food with lower antinutritional levels.
The purpose of this review was to synthesize the availability of antinutrients, clear their effect on the human body, and commemorate possible
paths to disable them. This review provides links to the available literature as well as enables a systematic view of the recently published research
on the topic of plant-based antinutrients.
Keywords: Antinutritional factors, Plant-based foods, Beneficial effect, Antinutrients, Food content , Biochemical approaches .
Article History Received: March 08, 2019 Revised: May 22, 2019 Accepted: June 06, 2019
Food is an essential part of people’s lives. Despite the
world produces enough food for everyone, over 800 million
people still go to bed hungry . Furthermore, malnutrition
and hunger-related diseases cause over 60% of deaths .
Eliminating hunger and malnutrition is one of the most
fundamental challenges facing humanity . Moreover, food
sufficiency is not the last aspect of importance; food nutritional
quality is of critical demand as well as the effects of the
accepted food portion, in particular. From this point of view,
the topic of the present review antinutrients raises essential
questions about human health and contributes to the under-
standing of what people actually eat and what the possible
resulting effects can be.
Antinutritional factors are primarily associated with
compounds or substances of natural or synthetic origin, which
interfere with the absorption of nutrients, and act to reduce
nutrient intake, digestion, and utilization and may produce
* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Biotechnology,
University of Food Technologies, 26 Maritza Blvd., 4002, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; Tel:
+359 898 742 397; E-mail: email@example.com
other adverse effects. Antinutrients are frequently related to
plant-based, raw or vegan diets and are naturally synthesized in
plants . Some of the common symptoms exhibited by a large
number of antinutrients in the body can be nausea, bloating,
headaches, rashes, nutritional deficiencies, etc. . On the
other hand, such chemical compounds can be evidently
advantageous to humankind when consumed wisely. In fact,
plants, for their own defense, primarily use antinutrients.
Although people’s sensitivity to antinutrients widely
differs adequate food processing is initially recommended to
reduce antinutritional factors . A person cannot eliminate
antinutrients once they have been introduced to the body.
Eliminating and reintroducing specific foods that contain
antinutrients can clear the correlation between symptoms and
effects on human health. In this regard, the biochemical effects
of the anti-nutritional factors are an object of research interest
[7 - 10] Most of the secondary metabolites, acting as anti-
nutrients, elicit very harmful biological responses, while some
of them are widely applied in nutrition and as pharmaco-
logically-active agents [11, 12].
Antinutrients are found in their highest concentrations in
Antinutrients in Plant-based Foods The Open Biotechnology Journal, 2019, Volume 13 69
grains, beans, legumes and nuts, but can also be found in
leaves, roots and fruits of certain varieties of plants. The major
antinutrients found in plant-based foods are phytates, tannins,
lectins, oxalates, etc. Antinutrients in vegetables, whole grains,
legumes and nuts are a concern only when a person’s diet is
composed exclusively of uncooked plant foods. Oxalate, for
instance, prevents calcium from being absorbed in the body by
binding with it . Raw spinach, kale, broccoli and soybeans
usually contain oxalates . When consuming excessive
tannins, which are associated with tea, wine, some fruit, and
chocolate, enzymes responsible for protein absorption may be
inactivated. Phytates are present in grains, nuts and seeds,
while peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes contain lectins.
Phytates consumption may lead a lower mineral absorption and
lectins are able to cause various reactions to the body .
Saponins, on the other hand, have been linked to red blood
cells damaging, enzyme inhibition and thyroid function
There are several approaches to oppose antinutritional
factors. Modern biotechnology`s techniques could reduce the
level of certain allergens and antinutrients in food. Genome
editing biotechnology can create mutations and substitutions in
plant and other eukaryotic cells based on nuclease-based forms
of engineering such as the TALENS (Transcription Activator-
Like Effector Nucleases) or the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly
Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)/CRISPR-Associated
Systems (CAS) [17, 18]. Providing an enhanced level of
prebiotic in the body can positively influence the effects of
antinutrients . A classic approach to remove antinutrients is
to treat the product thermally, use methods such as extrusion,
autoclaving, hydrotechniques, enzymatic and harvest treat-
ments, etc. .
The nutritional value of foods strongly depends on their
nutritional and antinutritional composition. This review was
designed to synthesize the availability of antinutrients, clear
their effect on the human body, and commemorate possible
paths to disable them.
2. ANTINUTRIENTS IN PLANT-BASED FOODS
Lectins, particularly abundant in plants, are proteins or
glycoproteins of non-immune origin. They have the ability to
bind, without modifying, to either carbohydrates or glyco-
conjugates (glycoproteins, glycolipids, polysaccharides). They
can successfully recognize animal cell carbohydrates, which
corresponds to the Latin derivation of the word legere meaning
to select . Lectins have a variety of roles. They can bypass
human defense system and travel all over the body causing
diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease, Coeliac-Sprue, colitis, etc.) by
breaking down the surface of the small intestine . When
large quantities of lectins are introduced in the body, the gut
wall develops holes, and intestinal permeability, causing the
leaky gut syndrome. Lectins can make cells act as if they have
been stimulated by insulin or cause the insulin release by the
pancreas. Lectins can also cause autoimmune diseases by
presenting wrong immune system codes and stimulating the
growth of some white blood cells [23, 24]. This may possibly
lead to cancer but lectins have not yet been recognized as
Not all variety of lectins are toxic or responsible for
intestinal damage. Lectins can be found in plant species such as
wheat, beans, quinoa, peas, etc. . As grains are a common
part of the birds’ diet, it has been found that birds themselves
are resistant to grains lectins . Acne, inflammation,
migraines or joint pains can be caused by the consumption of
lectins . Lectins are usually found in the hull so choosing
white rice can lower the lectin intake. Heating plant sources in
the process of cooking can significantly lower the amount of
lectins in them. White potatoes, for instance, have a higher
lectin content compared to sweet potatoes . Almonds are
also a richer lectin source than peanuts .
2.2. Trypsin Inhibitors
Trypsin inhibitors occur in a wide range of foods like
chickpeas, soybeans, red kidney beans, adzuki beans, mung
beans and other representatives of the Leguminoseae,
Solanaceae, and Gramineae families . Ten percent of the
world’s dietary protein is derived from grain legumes .
Trypsin inhibitors redound to the loss of trypsin and chymo-
trypsin in the gut, thus preventing protein digestion. Excess
trypsin synthesis and burden on sulfur-containing amino acids
in requirement of the body are due to the release of chole-
cystokinin triggered by trypsin inhibitors .
2.3. Alpha-amylase Inhibitors
Inhibition of α-amylase is considered a strategy for the
treatment of disorders in carbohydrate uptake, by reducing
insulin levels, as well as, dental caries and periodontal diseases
. Amylase inhibitors are substances that bind to alpha
amylases making them inactive . Two roles of α-amylase
inhibitors have been identified. The primary function of
inhibitors is protecting the seed against microorganisms and
pests, and the other function is the inhibition of the endogenous
α-amylase . However, the instability of this inhibitor under
the conditions of the gastrointestinal tract and being a very
heat-liable constituent results in its failure to be used as starch
blocker . It is used to control human diabetes type two 
and finds several applications in the food industry [38, 39].
2.4. Protease Inhibitors
Proteases are key cell-process-regulation enzymes that are
found in all cells and tissues. Protease inhibitors are commonly
present in raw cereals and legumes, especially soybean.
Protease inhibitors bind to their target proteins reversibly or
irreversibly. Growth inhibition, pancreatic hypertrophy ,
and poor food utilization  are associated with protease
inhibitors’ antinutrient activity. Exopeptidases remove amino
acids from the C- or N-terminus, whereas endopeptidases are
capable of cleaving peptides within the molecule . Grain
eating birds have evolved digestive enzymes that are resistant
to grain protease inhibitors . In human volunteers and in
animal experiments, high levels of protease inhibitors lead to
an increased secretion of digestive enzymes by the pancreas
70 The Open Biotechnology Journal, 2019, Volume 13 Popova and Mihaylova
Table 1. Antinutrients in different foods [29, 68 - 80].
Source Type Amount
Legumes (soya, lentils, chick peas, peanuts,
Grains (wheat, barley, rye, oat, millet, corn,
spelt, kamut, sorgho)
Pseudo-grains: quinoa, amaranth, wheat,
Nuts: almonds, hazelnut, cashew, pignola,
pistachio, brazil nuts, walnuts, macadamia,
Seeds: sesame, flaxseed, poppy seed,
Tubers: carrot, sweet potato, Jerusalem
artichoke, manioc (or tapioca), yam
Nighshades: potato, tomato, eggplant,
Fig. (1). Structure of some antinutrient substances.
Antinutrients in Plant-based Foods The Open Biotechnology Journal, 2019, Volume 13 71
Plant tannins are a major group of antioxidant polyphenols
found in food and beverages that attracts research interest with
its multifunctional properties to human health. Tannins are
oligomers of flavan-3-ols and flavan-3, 4-diols that are
concentrated in the bran fraction of legumes . Grapes and
green tea are rich in this water-soluble polyphenol .
Tannins exhibit antinutritional properties by impairing the
digestion of various nutrients and preventing the body from
absorbing beneficial bioavailable substances . Tannins can
also bind and shrink proteins. Tannin-protein complexes may
cause digestive enzymes inactivation and protein digestibility
reduction caused by protein substrate and ionisable iron
Phytates occur in several vegetable products. Seeds, grains,
nuts and legumes store phosphorus as phytic acid in their husks
in the form of phytin or phytate salt. Their presence may affect
bioavailability of minerals, solubility, functionality and diges-
tibility of proteins and carbohydrates . Phytic acid is most
concentrated in the bran of grains . In legumes, phytic acid
is found in the cotyledon layer and can be removed prior to
consumption . The digestive enzyme phytase can unlocked
the phosphorus stored as phytic acid. In the absence of phytase,
phytic acid can impede the absorption of other minerals like
iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium by binding to them .
This results in highly insoluble salts that are poorly absorbed
by the gastrointestinal tract leading to lower bioavailability of
minerals. Phytates also inhibit digestive enzymes like pepsin,
trypsin and amylase .
Hypothyroidism is increasing daily worldwide as the
thyroid gland is highly sensitive to stress and environmental
stimuli . Goitrogens interfere with iodine uptake and thus,
affect thyroid function. Vegetables from the genus Brassica i.e.
broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale are
some of the goitrogen rich foods . The consumption of
cruciferous vegetables affects triiodothyronine (T3) and thy-
roxine (T4) levels by causing hypothyroidism . Concomi-
tant factors can be insufficient water consumption and protein
2.8. Raffinose Oligosaccharides
Raffinose, stachyose and verbascose, all part of the
Raffinose Family Oligosaccharides (RFOs), are synthesized
from sucrose. Non-digestible oligosaccarides have a prebiotic
effect in the lower intestine by promoting the growth of
Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus that inhibit pathogenic
growth . The absence of appropriate enzyme activity to
hydrolyse RFOs (α-galactosidase) leads to the inability of
humans and to digest RFOs an allow them to pass through the
intestinal wall intact [51, 57]. A correlation between legumes
consumption and the likelihood of intestinal discomfort has
been drawn leading to symptoms like burping, abdominal pain,
and bloating . The presence of RFO in the daily food intake
can interfere with the digestion nutrients . RFO can reduce
metabolizable energy and protein utilization . Research has
shown that RFO removal has improved the digestion of all
amino acids increasing the overall nutritional value of the lupin
Some saponins (steroid or triterpene glycoside compounds)
can be used for food while others are toxic. Saponins with a
bitter taste are toxic in high concentrations and can affect
nutrient absorption by inhibiting enzymes (metabolic and
digestive) as well as by binding with nutrients such as zinc.
Saponins are naturally occurring substances with various
biological effects. In the presence of cholesterol, saponins
exhibit strong hypocholesterolemic effect . They can also
lead to hypoglycemia  or impair the protein digestion,
uptake vitamins and minerals in the gut, as well as lead to the
development of a leaky gut .
Some organic acids can have antinutritional factors. Oxalic
acid can form soluble (potassium and sodium) or insoluble
(calcium, magnesium, iron) salts or esters called oxalates that
are commonly found in plants i.e. leafy vegetables or syn-
thesized in the body . Insoluble salts cannot be processed
out of the urinary tract once processed through the digestive
system. Calcium oxalate can have a deleterious effect on
human nutrition and health by accumulating kidney stones
. Cruciferous vegetables (kale, radishes, cauliflower,
broccoli), as well as chard, spinach, parsley, beets, rhubarb,
black pepper, chocolate, nuts, berries (blueberries, black-
berries) and beans are some of the foods with high amounts of
oxalates . Most people can induct normal amounts of
oxalate rich foods, while people with certain conditions, such
as enteric and primary hyperoxaluria, need to lower their
oxalate intake. In sensitive people, even small amounts of
oxalates can result in burning in the eyes, ears, mouth, and
throat; large amounts may cause abdominal pain, muscle
weakness, nausea, and diarrhea .
Table 1 is revealing some food sources with the typical
antinutrients contained in them as well as the amounts
The alcohol-soluble proteins (proalimins) of cereal grains
and dairy products called gliadins can be further degraded to a
collection of opioid-like polypeptides named exorphins in the
gastrointestinal tract . Behavioral traits such as spon-
taneous behavior, memory, and pain perception can be affected
by the bioactivity of food-derived exorphins . Exorphins
can also influence gastric emptying and intestinal transit by
increasing its time . The digestion of milk produces alpha-
casein-derived exorphins . Recent research suggests that
epigenetic effects of milk-derived opiate peptides may
contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction and inflam-mation in
sensitive individuals .
Fig. (1) pinpoints some of the widely speard antinutrients
in plant-based foods.
72 The Open Biotechnology Journal, 2019, Volume 13 Popova and Mihaylova
2.12. Contextual Antinutrients
Some supplements or foods rich in certain nutrients can
create reactions of an antinutrient nature. For instance,
calcium-rich foods can impede iron absorption. There is also a
mutual antagonism between zinc and copper during the
absorption process, taking place in/on the intestinal epithelium
. Research literature suggests that phytosterols  and
phospholipids  may reduce cholesterol absorption when
added to nonfat foods. Some foods can interfere with
medication absorption . The most well publicized food-
drug interaction is that of grapefruit and a variety of drugs.
Bergamottin found in grapefruit juice inactivates drug-
metabolizing enzymes. This is the reason why food interaction
warnings are listed on some medical labels. Studies have found
that resveratrol, found in red wine and peanuts, inhibits platelet
aggregation, and high intakes could increase the risk of
bleeding when consumed with anticoagulant drugs .
Canadian researchers have documented that black tea was a
more powerful enzyme inhibitor than single-ingredient herbal
teas (St. John’s Wort, feverfew, cat’s claw, etc.) . Another
well-known food-drug interaction is that of foods containing
tyramine (chocolate, beer, wine, avocados, etc.) and mono-
amine oxidase inhibitors (type of antidepressant) . The
most medically consequential food-drug interaction is that of
vitamin K-rich foods (e.g. broccoli, spinach) and Coumadin, an
anticoagulant prescribed to thin the blood and prevent clots
3. ANTINUTRIENTS AND HUMAN HEALTH
While antinutrients can be problematic, some may also
provide health benefits. The consumers should be aware of any
possible effect whether beneficial and/or negative. Moreover,
concentration-dependent effects must be considered. Data may
be manipulated in respect of health related advantages so that
chronic diseases management becomes possible .
Antinutrients are valuable active ingredients in food and
drinks. When used at low levels, phytic acid, lectins and
phenolic compounds as well as enzyme inhibitors and saponins
have been shown to reduce blood glucose and/or plasma chol-
esterol and triacylglycerols. Furtermore, saponins are reported
to act effectively in maintaining liver function, preventing
steoporosis as well as platelet agglutination . Meanwhile,
phenolic compounds from plant sources, phytic acid, protease
inhibitors, saponins, lignans and phytoestrogens have been
demonstrated to reduce cancer risks. Another group of anti-
nutrient compounds, like tannins, were found to possess
possible antiviral , antibacterial  and antiparasitic
Some compounds such as phytoestrogens and lignans have
also been linked to induction of infertility in humans. There-
fore, it is prudent to examine all aspects of food antinutrients,
including their potential health benefits and methods of
The above mentioned implies that antinutrients could be
valuable tools for managing various diseases. They might not
always be harmful even though they lack nutritional value.
What is most important is focusing on dosage intake in order to
find the balance between beneficial and hazardous effects of
plant bioactives and antinutrients, in addition to the chemical
structure, time of exposure and interaction with other dietary
components. Many factors influence their activity. They can
both be considered as antinutritional factors with negative
effects or non-nutritive compounds with positive health effects.
Consumers’ awareness is crucial especially when abnormal
health conditions are established.
4. DISABLING ANTINUTRIENTS
Removing undesirable food components is essential to
their quality improvement. Different techniques i.e. soaking,
cooking, fermentation, radiation, germination and chemical
treatment can come in as handy instruments for antinutritional
disabling [98, 99]. The combination of several of the above-
mentioned methods may be more effective in removing anti-
nutrients than using a sole technique.
Soaking: Soaking can be seen as one of the easiest
physical processes to remove soluble antinutritional factors.
Soaking in distilled water, 1% NaHCO3 and mixed salt solu-
tions reduced total phenols, ortho-dihydroxyphenols, tannins
and phytates by 33, 41, 35 and 21 percentages respectively
. Soaking decreased the total protein, soluble sugar and
tannins, in soybean flour . Soaking and sprouting grains,
nuts, seeds, and beans are an excellent way to deactivate
enzyme inhibitors . However, lectin is not affected by this
method of deactivation.
Fermentation: Fermenting assorted grain flour with L.
acidophilus at 37°C for 24 h led to the reduction of phytic acid
and polyphenol content . Recent research has shown a
general noticeable reduction in the entire antinutrient properties
of soybean for a day of fermentation . Ojokoh et al. 
have studied the effect of fermentation on the antinutritional
composition of breadfruit and cowpea flours showing a
significant reduction of the hydrogen cyanide, oxalate and
phytate content. Fermentation is reported to increase the
protein content in chickpea by 13% and decrease the content of
phytic acid by 45% . Adeyemo et al.  assessed the
effects of fermentation of sorghum at 0, 72 and 120 hours on
trypsin inhibitor, protease inhibitor, phytate and tannin. A
significant reduction of trypsin inhibitor (69%); protease
inhibitor (30%); phytate (60%) and tannin (72%) was observed
at 120 h with L. plantarum used as starter culture. On the other
hand, L. brevis as starter appeared to be effective at 120h with
58% reduction of trypsin inhibitor; 40% of protease inhibitor;
70% of phytate and 56% of tannin.
Sprouting (Germination): Germination is one of the most
effective processes for the reduction of anti-nutritive com-
pounds i.e. phytate levels . The trypsin inhibitor activity,
amylase inhibitor activity and phytate content of soy-bean
variety MACS-13 decreased with sprouting . Kanensi et
al.  report a lower antinutrient level of germi-nated
amaranth seeds. The levels of tannins and phytate were
insignificant. To overcome the antinutritional levels, Kajla et
al.  also adopted the germination process in flax seeds.
Other authors reaffirm that germination leads to increased
nutritional and decreased anti-nutrients content in plant-based
Heating: Cooking whole grains, beans and vegetables can
Antinutrients in Plant-based Foods The Open Biotechnology Journal, 2019, Volume 13 73
reduce certain antinutrients such as phytic acid, tannins, and
oxalic acid. Protease inhibitors are easily denatured by heat
treatment due to their protein nature . Research has shown
that antinutrient levels are reduced with controlled heating at a
temperature less than boiling for at least 15 minutes .
Autoclaving can also drastically decrease the content of
tannins, phytic acid, hydrogen cyanide, trypsin inhibitors and
oligosaccharides . Cooking sweet potato leaves with lemon
reduced polyphenols with 56% and lowered the oxalate levels
. Boiling bambara groundnut seeds for a period of 60 min
significantly lowers the raffinose content and improves protein
digestibility of the seeds .
Gamma radiation: Gamma radiation appeared to be a
good procedure to decrease the level of trypsin inhibitor, phytic
acid and oligosaccharides of broad bean between 5 and 10%
. However, Hassan et al.  documented that a 2 kGy
dose had no significant change in the tannin content of two
maize cultivars. Similar observations were reported by El-
Niely  and Fombang et al. . Low doses of gamma
irradiation (0.5 and 1.0 kGy) Faba bean seeds significantly
reduced antinutritional factors such as tannin and phytic acid
. Gamma radiation can be applied as a safe postharvest
method to minimize antinutrients of millet grains .
Genomic technology: Genomic resources can be used as
pathways to RNA interference and removing of antinutrient
factors, but this technology has yet to be tried out in vivo .
Shukla et al.  designed zinc-finger nucleases construct to
mutate the IPK1 gene in maze, one of the phytic acid
biosynthesis genes because corn contains high levels of
phosphorus stored in the form of phytic acid. Genome editing
technology can increase crop quality but there is an ongoing
argument about genetically modified organisms’ safety .
Antinutritional factors are widespread food compounds
that are especially challenging for those choosing a
predominantly plant-based diet i.e. vegan, vegetarians, etc.
Antinutrients can exhibit beneficial health effects if present in
small amounts or cause nutrient deficiencies. Uninformed
consumers may deal with some misleading information when
the latter is not sufficiently available. Antinutrients may induce
their undesirable effects when consumed above their upper
limit. Harmful effects can also be due to antinutritional
breakdown products. Thus, the presence of lectins, tannins,
alkaloids, and saponins, goitrogens, inhibitors, etc. in foods
may induce various reactions when the consumer is presented
with little knowledge related to the environmental influence on
the detoxification capacity of the human organism. Classic
approaches and modern agricultural biotechnological programs
can serve as antinutritional removal tools. However, health risk
factors can be avoided when a daily sustainable diet lying on a
sound scientific basis is introduced.
CONSENT FOR PUBLICATION
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors declare no conflict of interest, financial or
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