Plant proteins called lectins are emerging as the next food trend to cause confusion and fear about what to eat. Lectins are protein compounds found in a long list of foods including grains, beans, legumes, nuts, dairy, eggs, fruits, tomatoes and potatoes.

Plant proteins called lectins are emerging as the next food trend to cause confusion and fear about what to eat. Lectins are protein compounds found in a long list of foods including grains, beans, legumes, nuts, dairy, eggs, fruits, tomatoes and potatoes.

A recently published book and numerous internet stories have fueled lectin phobia, claiming that lectin in our diet is a major cause of ill health. Lectins are being blamed for inflammation; autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease; irritable bowel syndrome; rheumatoid arthritis; and even our current obesity crisis.

What’s behind the concern? Plants contain lectin as a survival mechanism. Castor beans, for example, are very high in lectins and are poisonous to most animals. Ricin, a deadly poison, is synthesized from castor beans. But in normal digestion, lectins stick to the different carbs also present in the food. The lectins then pass through the digestive tract unchanged, much like fiber does.

If lectins are consumed without carbs, they can stick to our intestinal wall, resulting in symptoms similar to food poisoning. However, this rarely happens in real life and usually only if someone consumes raw beans or has a compromised or out-of-balance gut. The lab studies often cited that show this reaction use isolated lectins in high concentrations, which is not how we eat lectins in the real world.

Repeated exposure to high levels of lectin could eventually damage the gut intestinal wall, but it would be difficult and rare for someone to eat a large enough quantity to cause this damage. Plus, cooking lectin-containing foods, as well as eating them with other foods, neutralizes much of the potential harm.

There has not been a lot of research on the effect of lectins, but what is available shows no strong reason for concern about the impact on human health. There are far more studies that point to the benefits of lectin-containing foods and plant-based diets. Avoiding lectins would mean avoiding many nutrient-dense foods that are high in protein, antioxidants, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals. The people in the world who live the longest tend to eat plant-rich diets and lectins in abundance. Furthermore, our current Western diet of carb-rich, highly processed foods and fatty meats, with poor fruit and vegetable intake, has not made us healthier or resulted in weight loss.

If you are still concerned that lectins may be causing you problems, take the following steps to decrease any lectin-associated risk.

Never eat raw beans, especially red kidney beans. Also, don’t let kids play with dry beans because they may eat them.

Don’t use dry heat, such as a slow cooker, to cook dry beans.

Soak dry beans overnight in water. Then drain, rinse and cook them in fresh water until fully cooked. Know that canned beans are fine. They have been soaked, cooked and canned.

Know that fermented foods, especially such soy products as miso and tempeh, allow beneficial bacteria to digest and convert harmful substances.

Sprouting most seeds, grains and beans will decrease their lectin content. The exception is alfalfa sprouts; sprouting these enhances their lectin activity.

Be careful if you use dry bean meal or flour in cooking because it may not cook long enough to neutralize the lectin.

Boiling, fermenting, sprouting, peeling, deseeding and pressure cooking are all ways to decrease lectins in your food.

More research is needed before following a lectin-free diet. This diet seems to be another misdirected fad rather than a healthy diet backed by science. Lectins are distributed in many foods that have been consumed by humans for centuries, so it is difficult to believe they pose a significant risk to our health.