Guest Blogs

What are lectins?

19 Jul 2021 | Written by Après Food Co.



At The Joy Club, we’re big fans of wonderful, tasty and nutritious food. Food that empowers, fuels and heals us, and has a positive impact on our health and wellbeing. That’s why we’re delighted to have partnered with Après Food Co. They create the very best organic, fresh food – expertly crafted, flash frozen and ready to eat in minutes. All of their dishes are hand-made from scratch using ingredients that have been carefully chosen for their nourishing benefits to both body and mind. The Après team have kindly shared one of their articles with us, which is all about lectins – say what?!

No, they have nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter – apart from the fact that occasionally they can be a bit evil!

Sometimes foods get labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and lectins seem to get pushed into the ‘bad’ category. But that’s not always the case. They can be harmful, but there are ways and means to get around that. But, what are lectins?

Lectins can be found in plants, animals and bacteria – they are part of a defense mechanism, essentially. Their correct definition is ‘a carbohydrate binding protein’. Yikes, what is that?

Simplified version alert! Let’s take lectins in our bodies, first. Imagine that a pathogen enters our body, how does our body know that it is not part of our body, and should be marked for total destruction? If it has visited before, the body might recognise it, as it will have built up antibodies to that particular pathogen, but that takes time. If it’s a new kid on the block then it needs to be tagged. The pathogen has sugars on its surface and – depending on the arrangement of those sugars – this will identify it as an ‘other’. This is where lectins come in because they are sugar binding proteins and have this ability to stick like Velcro to the pathogen and show it for what it really is. So really they are part of our immune system. That’s only one of the functions, but we won’t go into the rest because it’s a bit complicated and we are only interested in lectins in food…

This family of proteins can be found in most foods to varying degrees, but the ones that cause the most problems are grains (especially wheat, known as wheat grain agglutinin, WGA), beans, legumes (especially soy), dairy and the nightshade family of vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and potatoes). To stop them creating havoc in our guts we can get around it by soaking, fermenting, sprouting and cooking them properly!

Lectins: The negatives

Humans can have problems digesting lectins as they are resistant to our body’s digestive enzymes and tend to pass through our stomachs, unchanged.

Because of their superglue-like qualities, lectins from plant foods can attach themselves to our intestinal wall and have a similar effect on it that gluten does, creating the situation of a leaky gut. The real problem begins if they do enter the bloodstream because of their ability to bind to almost any type of cell and cause damage to different organs. This has associated them with autoimmune conditions (wheat grain lectins link to rheumatoid arthritis, being an example) and inflammation, as damage to the intestinal wall can lead to a broader immune system response. 

If enough lectins are consumed (or not cooked properly) it can cause damage to the gut lining which can invoke symptoms similar to food poisoning. Our body’s reaction is to go into ‘evacuate mode’ to get rid of the source of irritation. Kidney beans are probably one that most people have heard of that can cause problems. They are in fact poisonous if not soaked and cooked properly. The lectin responsible for this is called phytohaemagglutinin (why are they always so unpronounceable?!)

Anyone with conditions like Crohn’s disease or IBS may be more sensitive to food lectins due to the high turnover of cells in their gut lining. 

Note of caution here – in our modern world, genetically modified (GM) food is becoming more prevalent. The GM soybean needs attention in particular. Not only is it genetically modified to be more tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate (yes, it has been altered so that it tolerates a herbicide!) but it has been found to have double the amount of soy lectin in it and an increased amount of soy allergen. This doesn’t bode well for our future health, especially when a lot of our meat and dairy comes from animals fed GM produce. This is another reason to go organic! The insecticidal effects of lectins are used in the biotechnology industry to produce, on a commercial scale, crops that are tolerant to insecticides.

Lectins: The positives

Exciting research is going on regarding the use of lectins from plant and animal sources in anti- cancer treatment. One of the main ones of interest is the mistletoe lectin (mistletoe is actually poisonous if ingested, so don’t go eating it)! The interest is of course to somehow use the lectins capability to programme cell death in the cancer cells and somehow harness that capability without the toxic effects on other tissues. There has also been some research on chickpea lectins and breast cancer.

Other research going on is the harnessing of lectins against bacterial and fungal infections. There is also interest in using lectins in pharmaceutical drugs because of their super glue qualities to target and deliver these drugs exactly where they need to be aimed.

This blog content was originally published here – see references and further reading.

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