Saponins are bitter, biologically active compounds found in chick peas, soybeans, legumes (beans) and alfalfa sprouts that foam up like soap suds in water. They are named after the soapwort plant (Saponaria), the root of which was used traditionally as a soap.
Robb Wolf, in The Paleo Solution, is pretty scathing about them, explaining that they are “so irritating to the immune system that they are used in vaccine research to help the body mount a powerful immune response.”
Wow. Why so bad? Well they seem to cause damage in 4 areas: firstly in your gut (which by now, you know is not a good thing). They bind with cholesterol, creating holes in the membranes of microvilli cells. For anyone with IBS or food intolerances, this is clearly a no-go. Even though the effect is fairly weak, when eaten in combination with other allergens, lectins, and gluten (which also damage the mucosal membrane of the gut), it adds up to a cumulative risk.
Secondly, saponins break down red blood cells in a process known as haemolysis. This action is also weak, but the human body’s ability to resist this type of damage decreases with age along with a decline in the quality of red blood cell membranes. Given that there seems to be a low iron/fibro correlation, it stands to reason that any compound that can break down our iron carriers is not a good thing!
Thirdly, they prevent important enzymes – such as succinate dehydrogenase, a key player in the Krebs cycle – from functioning properly. The Krebs cycle (or citric acid cycle), is a vital function which allows us to properly absorb nutrients, heal and grow. It might be that the Krebs cycle is disrupted in fibro sufferers, as research in the Journal of rheumatology from 1995 showed that magnesium (crucial for the smooth running of the cycle) helped improve symptoms . [Note that the malic acid itself didn’t seem to do much at all, it was only when the dose was increased (and therefore, the magnesium), that sufferers reported improvements.]
Finally, saponins may be goitrogenic and spur enlargement of the thyroid. Saponins shouldn’t take all the rap for thyroid disease, but given the fact that they tend to be found in plant foods that also contain isoflavones, coumestans, lignans, gossypol glycosides and other known goitrogens, we can’t rule them out as a contributor to thyroid disease. And there does seem to be thyroid dysregulation in fibromyalgia – we clearly don’t want to worsen it.
So it should be pretty obvious by now to stay clear of the humus!
I suggest totally cutting out chickpeas, quinoa, peanuts, beans (the legume kind), potatoes and soy for the first 6 months of your recovery. After that, and once you’re feeling 80% better (and you will, trust me!), you can re-introduce chickpeas, butter beans, cannellini and black eyed beans into your diet, 1-2 times a week, but only if you’ve soaked (‘activated’) and cooked them thoroughly beforehand. More on activating/sprouting in a future post, for now read this. Don’t rely on tinned beans, it’s better for you to be sure that they’re properly cooked. Even 3 years on, I still stay totally clear of shop-bought humus and any kind of quinoa salad.