Activating nuts is a simple process that is said to make nuts healthier. But is that true? Is really worth spending the extra money on activated nuts and seeds – or is the idea of health-boosting activated nuts a myth? We take a look at the science to see if activating nuts is really necessary …
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This post was first published in 2013. It’s been fully updated and republished in August 2022
- What Are Activated Nuts?
- What Are The Benefits of Activating Nuts?
- Activating Nuts Might Make Them LESS Healthy
- Two Other Downsides of Activated Nuts…
- Activated Nuts May Have One Benefit Though…
- So, Is Activating Nuts Necessary?
- How to Activate Nuts at Home
What Are Activated Nuts?
I first came across the concept of activating nuts in Wholefoods when I encountered a bag of activated walnuts. At this point, I’m in the aisle with two questions running through my head…
1) How do you activate a walnut?
2) What happens if you do?
In my imagination I’m conjuring up a squirrel hovering over a big red button squeaking ‘we’re going to NutCom 1’ at which point a little walnut army starts to form across the globe.
It turns out, it’s not quite that exciting.
Instead, it seems that activating nuts simply refers to the process of soaking the nuts in salt water for as long as 24 hours (depending on the type of nut).
This helps reduce levels of substances in them called enzyme inhibitors that normally stop them from sprouting and also lowers levels of another substance called phytate (or phytic acid).
Apparently, it’s the way that the Aztec people have been consuming nuts for thousands of years.
What Are The Benefits of Activating Nuts?
There’s a few reported benefits of activated nuts…
The theory is that activating nuts are less likely to upset the gut than untreated nuts.
You see, while most people have no problem with consuming enzyme inhibitors and phytate, some folk feel they cause havoc with their digestive system triggering problems like constipation, stomach cramping and bloat.
As such, it’s suggested that they might be able to eat activated forms of nuts with fewer after-effects than normal nuts.
Greater Nutritional Bioavailability
Phytic acid is what’s known as an anti-nutrient. These are foods that can reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals our body absorbs from within them – and, other elements of the meal we consume them with. And they are found in some nuts – particularly almonds.
Removing phytic acid is therefore said to release higher than normal levels of nutrients from the nuts, and, help avoid that nasty bitter taste they can develop.
I admit, both of those sound like good things – but hold on, as a little further investigation discovers all might not be as it seems…
Activating Nuts Might Make Them LESS Healthy
I first wrote this post back in 2013 when activated nuts were pretty new in shops – and as I update things in 2022 quite a lot of interesting research has appeared about the benefits of activated nuts.
Okay, here’s the bad news…
They Actually Reduce Nutrients
Rather than just theorising the benefits of activating nuts a team at New Zealand’s University of Otago have actually studied what happens to nuts during the soaking process involved in activation and not only did they find that it doesn’t actually reduce the phytate levels – they discovered it actually lowers levels of other nutrients within the nuts.
After soaking, levels of iron, calcium and zinc were all lower than before the nuts were activated. Chopped nuts suffered the biggest fall – with levels of calcium in chopped nuts falling by as much as 25 per cent.
That’s right, not only does soaking nuts not remove the so-called anti-nutrients that can affect nutritionally bioavailability, it also lowers levels of the actual nutrients in nuts! Not the plan, Jan!
And There’s More
Activating nuts also increased levels of sodium within the nuts – and sodium is something you need to cut down on.
And this isn’t the first time the group have cast doubts on the health benefits of activated nuts.
Back in 2018 they looked specifically at activated almonds and discovered that soaking them not only didn’t affect phytate levels – people didn’t experience improved gastrointestinal symptoms whether they ate activated nuts or non-soaked ones. In fact, flatulence actually went up after eating the soaked nuts!!!!!
If you’re experiencing gas after eating, have a look at this guide to the most common causes of this and see if something other than nuts might be to blame.
Another study from them in 2019 discovered that activating nuts also lowered levels of fats in the nuts. While this might sound like a good thing, the fat in nuts is healthy unsaturated fat so it’s not something you want to be removed. And the study actually says that activating nuts might interfere with the cholesterol-lowering benefits associated with nuts.
A Quick Note About Beans
Interestingly many of the sites extolling the virtues of activated nuts and talking about the removal of phytates etc, don’t actually cite nut-based studies – they cite the removal of phytates from soaking of things like quinoa, pigeon peas and other beans, pulses and legumes.
There’s no doubt that soaking removes phytates from these and, that if you suffer bloating from beans, pulses or legumes it’s a good idea to soak dried forms before use to try and limit this effect – but, the studies on soaking nuts to remove phytates don’t hold up to specific scrutiny.
Which might actually not be a bad thing because…
Phytates Might Actually Not Be So Bad…
As I said, the reason it’s suggested that you remove phytic acid from nuts is that our body finds it hard to digest (true – we don’t have the enzyme we need to do this) and, as it passes through the intestine, it will bind to nutrients like iron, calcium and zinc meaning you absorb less of these – that’s also true.
But, does that actually cause nutritional deficiency? In most people no. The amount affected doesn’t counteract the amount consumed in the average healthy diet.
In fact, according to nutritionists at Harvard University, the only people who may experience some level of nutrient deficiency from phytate consumption are those on a vegan diet, who might want to think about how they time their foods to ensure they’re not causing competition for nutrients in the gut.
Another paper which analysed the impact of all manner of anti-nutrients in the diet also found that the actual affect on nutritional bioavailability of iron and zinc by phytate containing foods was negligible. For example, in this study removing 90 percent of the phytate on two types of flour saw no change in the amount of iron absorbed.
There’s also a suggestion that phytate might be doing us a favour by acting against iron – potentially reducing the risk of oxidation of unabsorbed iron in the colon. That’s right, phytates have antioxidant properties so, you might actually not want to remove them.
On top of that, there’s some suggestion that phytates may have other beneficial roles in the body including reducing risks of heart disease and some cancers which would mean you might not want to eliminate them if activation DID work.
Final Fun Fact Alert
Another study has discovered that if you consume foods containing vitamin C alongside phytate containing foods, the uptake of iron reduced by phytate is counteracted by the boost your get from the ascorbic acid in vitamin C. So, so long as you mix up your meals, it’s all balancing itself out anyway!
Two Other Downsides of Activated Nuts…
The packet of activated walnuts I bought cost £4.99 for an 80g packet (I first wrote this post in 2013, I dread to think how much they are now!). That’s 15 walnut halves. That’s 66p a walnut. Ha ha ha ha ha ha…breathe….no sorry, can’t stop just yet……ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
I mean I can see they’re a bit more pampered than the average nut, but f I’m going to consume the Kobe beef of walnuts, but at that price, I think I want each one brought to be individually on a little cushion carried in by squirrels.
The Health Halo Effect
Nuts are good for you – no doubt. But, they do also contain a fairly large amount of calories per handful which is why a healthy portion of nuts is classed as just 30g
(If that’s a bit of a shock, see more on suggested portion sizes here).
However, it’s been shown that when something has a healthy label on it – like organic or fair trade, or, theoretically, activated, we tend to underestimate calories within it and eat more of it – which if you’re trying to control your weight is not going to help.
Just because nuts have the word activated on them does not negate the calories within them.
If you want to see more about this effect, which is known as the health halo, have a look at our post on the health halo and how to avoid it.
Activated Nuts May Have One Benefit Though…
Despite everything discussed above there are some people might want to eat activated nuts. And that’s those who have issues with digestion and IBS.
You see soaking some types of nut can also reduce levels of substances called FODMAPs that appear within them.
We’ve talked about these a lot on this blog, in posts like ‘Why does Eggplant Cause Gas?‘ but if you haven’t checked those posts out yet, FODMAPs are a group of sugars found in a many, many different foods including nuts.
The issue with FODMAPs is that they ferment while they are being digested and, in those with a more sensitive gut, this can lead to bloating, abdominal pains and other IBS-style symptoms.
There are many different types of FODMAPs – but, some of them can be reduced in a food (like chickpeas for example) by soaking it – can you see where we’re going here?
Let’s take cashews…
These are normally off the menu completely for people who react poorly to FODMAPs called GOS and fructans, but the team at Monash University, who are the gurus of all things FODMAP, have discovered that if you activate cashews, enough of these two FODMAPs are reduced in the nuts to allow most people to eat a small portion (around 10 nuts) without digestive symptoms.
So, there’s activating nuts to beat bloating might have nothing to do with removing enzyme inhibitors or phytates – it might be down to the removal FODMAPs.
Admittedly, soaking doesn’t work on the FODMAPs of every nut – the team also tested pistachios and found that while activated the nuts reduced the fructan count down to a level where someone with a sensitivity to fructan could eat 15 nuts with a low chance of symptoms, it didn’t reduce the GOS score at all.
And, as far as I can see from the Monash FODMAP app – the most reliable source of FODMAP information out there – they haven’t made any specific references to activating almonds, activated walnuts or other activated nuts on the app, so that either means they haven’t tested these, or, it made no difference to those nuts.
So, Is Activating Nuts Necessary?
For most people no.
Activating nuts are not better for you – in fact doing so might even reducing how healthy the nuts are. Plus, the activation process doesn’t increase their health benefits for most people. The exception is those who have issues with FODMAPs where it might be worth giving the process a try.
Even then though you don’t have to pay over inflated health store prices for the privilege.
How to Activate Nuts at Home
As I said at the beginning of this post, activated nuts cost a lot more than normal nuts, but, if you have patience – and an oven – you can activate nuts yourself
All it takes to activate nuts is to soak them in salted water for enough time to reduce the levels of FODMAPs, enzyme inhibitor and phytates within them.
Each nut has a different amount of soaking time that it needs to achieve this – the harder the nut the longer it takes – and you do need to be careful that softer nuts don’t go slimy.
Cashew nuts take the least amount of time – you just need to soak those for 3-6 hours, almonds take the longest and need soaking for 12-24 hours.
Once you’ve soaked the nuts, rinse them to remove the salt water, and then dry them in a low temperature oven or a dehydrator for 12-24 hours until they are dry and crunchy.
If you want full instructions on how to activate a nut, you’ll find a full list of timings here.
So, there you have it, our guide to the facts – and myths – relating to activating nuts. I hope it helped clear up some things for you -so, let me know in the comment whether it helped you decide whether to use them or not. Do you think consuming activated nuts makes you feel better and why -I’d love to hear your views.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.