Salting, roasting, toasting, soaking — what helps, what hinders and why do so many people have problems with eating nuts? Here is a step by step breakdown of the digestive process, and how nuts are impacted by one’s digestive system.
How Digestion Breaks Down Nuts in Stages
Roughly a three-stage process, digestion begins in the mouth, when as you are chewing, enzymes in the saliva begin to break down the starch in foods. Later, enzymes in the stomach begin to release or unfasten the bonds (chemical in nature) that hold the proteins in food together. Still more enzymes in the intestines, together with bile, continue to break down foods (and nuts), working on the protein, starches and fats.
Not all materials can be broken down by the body, however, and high on the list is fiber, which is not digestible. Fiber makes its way through the intestines, only partially broken down by the bacteria in the colon; this process is again aided by the production of enzymes in this part of the body. Comparatively, starches are broken down in a couple of hours or less, while proteins take at least that long, and may stay in the body for upwards of 5 hours. Fat takes even longer, which means that high fat meals stay in the body for potentially many hours.
Composition: Proteins and Fiber
High in both fiber and protein (as well as healthy fat — upwards of fifty percent), most tree nuts also contain a good deal of protein (10-20%). The fiber content in nuts is also significant, amounting to upwards of ten percent of their nutritional make-up. Nuts make up an excellent source of nutrition and sustained energy for these very reasons: the fiber and healthy fat contents, along with the protein, all make for a slow digestion cycle in the body.
Digesting: How Preparation Might Factor In
As mentioned earlier, cooking methods like roasting or baking can also influence the how your body successfully (or otherwise) digests nuts. Any type of cooking essentially breaks down food at a chemical level, in a way not dissimilar to the body’s own methods. The lower the temperature, the better the process aids the body itself in further breaking down and digesting the food. High-temperature baking and cooking destroys many of these same chemical bonds. The good fats to be found in nuts are among these bonds that are destroyed in high-temperature cooking.
Other Compounds and Digestion
Tannins, found in nuts, are naturally occurring complex polyphenolics, and are often found in woody plants. Polyphenolics are simply natural antioxidants that comprise an organic defense for plants; these may also be good for human health. The tannins’ main function in nature is a protective one, as their bitter taste deters many animals from eating the foods that contain them. For example, walnuts are chief among the foods high in tannin. Additionally, tannins are contained in cashews, pistachios, pecans and the skins of almonds and peanuts.
These same tannins are heat-resistant, so even high temperature baking and roasting does not break them down, which partially explains why the nuts might give some people trouble when digesting. The fibrous quality of nuts, given the intestine’s inability to completely break down fiber, also explains why there may be some trouble digesting nuts. Gas is produced by the intestine in many cases as some of the colon’s bacteria attempts to break down whatever parts of the fiber that it can.
Cooking, Roasting, Baking: Digestion Helpers?
Cooking nuts in a variety of fashions, to recap, does aid in breaking down the starch elements of the the nuts’ nutritional make-up. However, the very elements that might increase difficulty in digestion, the high proteins, tannins and fiber, still produce problems for many. The plant protein-rich quality of nuts may prove to be handled well by the stomach, though in many cases, where the pancreas aids in the process, the roasting of the nuts can help improve nuts’ digestibility.
Digesting May Be Slow, But Benefits Are High
It is the healthy fats found in nuts that end up contributing to the slowing down of digestion the most. This is especially true when compared to how quickly the body may break down foods that are high in carbohydrates, like breads and fruits. The fiber in nuts is generally what gives a feeling of fullness, but the gas that is produced in the intestines as some bacteria attempt to break down the nut’s fiber may also promote a full feeling. Eating too many nuts at a time (beyond two servings) may produce many of the symptoms and effects mentioned above, leading a person to feel full and perhaps suffer mild indigestion. The reality is that the proteins, fiber and healthy fats are the cause — not over-eating.
Benefits of Soaking and Rehydrating
Soaking nuts like almonds and cashews in filtered water re-hydrates them. Beyond the enriched flavor and new texture, the process also removes chemicals known as enzyme inhibitors. These chemicals are natural, and exist for the purpose of protecting the nut until it is the appropriate time for it to sprout. When you soak the nuts in water, the fluids release the enzyme inhibitors and wash them away. For those who experience a bit of trouble when digesting dried nuts, removing the enzyme inhibitors (which can make the nut difficult to digest) may solve the problem.
Other options to aid in digestion include eating raw nuts in smaller portions, to maximize the healthy benefits of the nuts while minimizing the pain of indigestion, or lightly roasting nuts to begin the process of chemically breaking down the nuts. Avoid commercially roasted nuts, however, as the high temperatures (+170F) cause a breakdown of the fats in nuts, thus producing free radicals that are harmful to the body.