Phytates in Beans: Anti-Nutrient or Anti-Cancer?

In Phytates in the Prevention of Cancer and Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells, I described how phytates in beans may be the reason why legumes are so successful in preventing cancer and reeducating cancer cells. What about phytates for the treatment of cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It arises from “adenomatous polyps,” meaning that colon cancer starts out as a benign little bump called a polyp and then grows into cancer that can eventually spread to other organs and kill. So the National Cancer Institute funded the Polyp Prevention Trial to determine the effects of a high-fiber, high fruit and vegetable, low-fat diet.

Researchers found no significant associations between polyp formation and overall change in fruit and vegetable consumption. However, those with the greatest increase in bean intake only had about a third of the odds of advanced polyps popping up. It could have been the fiber in the beans, but there’s lots of fiber in fruits and vegetables, too. So it may have been the phytate.

If the tumors develop from polyps, they still need to spread. Tumor growth, invasion, and metastasis are multistep processes that include cell proliferation, digestion through the surrounding tissue, and migration through barrier membranes to reach the bloodstream so the tumor can establish new proliferating colonies of cancer cells. A critical event in tumor cell invasion is the first step: the tunneling through the surrounding matrix. To do this, the cancer cells use a set of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. This is where phytates might come in. We’ve known that phytates inhibit cancer cell migration in vitro, and now perhaps we know why. Phytates help block the ability of cancer cells to produce the tumor invasion enzyme in the first place (a result found in human colon and breast cancer cells).

So what happens if you give phytates to breast cancer patients? Although a few case studies where phytates were given in combination with chemotherapy clearly showed encouraging data, organized, controlled, randomized clinical studies were never done—until now. Fourteen women with invasive breast cancer were divided randomly into two  groups. One group got extra phytates; the other got placebo. At the end of six months, the phytate group had a better quality of life, significantly more functionality, fewer symptoms from the chemo, and did not get the drop in immune cells and platelets chemo patients normally experience.

What are the potential side effects of phytates? Less heart disease, less diabetes, and fewer kidney stones.

Because cancer development is such an extended process—it can take decades to grow—we need cancer preventive agents that we can take long-term. Phytates, which naturally occur in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, seem to fit the bill.

In the past, there were concerns that the intake of foods high in phytates might reduce the bioavailability of dietary minerals, but recent studies demonstrate that this co-called “anti-nutrient” effect can be manifested only when large quantities of phytates are consumed in combination with a nutrient poor diet. For example, there used to be a concern that phytate consumption might lead to calcium deficiency, which then led to weakened bones, but researchers discovered that the opposite was true, that phytates actually protect against osteoporosis (See Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis). In essence, phytates have many characteristics of a vitamin, contrary to the established and, unfortunately, still existing dogma among nutritionists regarding its ‘anti-nutrient’ role.

As one paper in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology suggest, “Given the numerous health benefits, phytates participation in important intracellular biochemical pathways, normal physiological presence in our cells, tissues, plasma, urine, etc., the levels of which fluctuate with intake, epidemiological correlates of phytate deficiency with disease and reversal of those conditions by adequate intake, and safety – all strongly suggest for phytates inclusion as an essential nutrient, perhaps a vitamin.” The paper concludes that inclusion of phytates in our diet for prevention and therapy of various ailments, cancer in particular, is warranted.

More on preventing tumor invasion and metastasis in:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis
#1 Anticancer Vegetable
Cancer-Proofing Your Body


Mac C.
mac C4 years ago

Good information. I just heard a story on "All Things Considered" that highlighted a 35 year old who was recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The piece went on to show there are many more younger people diagnosed with cancer these days than before due to our poor diet, processed foods and lack of exercise. Very sad. Thanks again for a great post.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Eat well

Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen4 years ago

Thank you :)

JL A4 years ago

interesting exploration

John chapman
John chapman4 years ago

Beans were poor folks food when I was growing up.

We ate a lot of beans.

I told my wife I wanted cornbread, & beans.

She asked, "what do you want with it"?

I said, "with it"?

Some salsa, & Tabasco, & I'm good to go.

Barbara P.
Barbara P4 years ago

More beans please!!! :)

Jan N.
Jan N4 years ago

Sorry, left off the citation:

Jan N.
Jan N4 years ago

March 23, 2009 -- We Americans suffer a national eating disorder: our unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

That's the diagnosis delivered by food author Michael Pollan in a lecture given last week to an overflow crowd of CDC scientists... "The French paradox is that they have better heart health than we do despite being a cheese-eating, wine-swilling, fois-gras-gobbling people," Pollan said. "The American paradox is we are a people who worry unreasonably about dietary health yet have the worst diet in the world. In various parts of the world, Pollan noted, necessity has forced human beings to adapt to all kinds of diets. "The Masai subsist on cattle blood and meat and milk and little else. Native Americans subsist on beans and maize. And the Inuit in Greenland subsist on whale blubber and a little bit of lichen," he said. "The irony is, the one diet we have invented for ourselves -- the Western diet -- is the one that makes us sick."... Pollan says everything he's learned about food and health can be summed up in seven words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Sharon Stein
Sharon Stein4 years ago

Thanks beano, I can now eat beans!

Teresa W.
Teresa W4 years ago