What are phytates and how do they affect absorption of minerals?

You’ve heard that spinach has a lot of iron, right? But what you may not know is that spinach is a poor way to get iron because of its content of phytate.

Some of the iron in spinach is bound to phytate. Most of the iron you get is absorbed in the small intestine’s duodenum. It comes into the mucosal cell as either a free ion or as heme. If iron is attached to phytates, however, its resistant to disassociation in the gut.

One way to help improve the absorption is by cooking the spinach to break down ligands attached to the iron. And by combining protein with your spinach, you can cause the stomach to release more hydrochloric acid, lowering the pH and helping free up some more iron.

When people have stomach problems that inhibit their ability to release hydrochloric acid (such as when people become older), it’s known that a lot of iron is not absorbed at all. In these cases, it may be important to increase the amount of iron in the diet (specifically heme iron from animal foods since its easiest to absorb), even supplement with iron.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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