The Secret Science of Food Synergy

Some foods become more nutritious when paired together. Use this guide to learn about food matches made in heaven.

| September/October 2014

  • Eat tomatoes with olive oil to boost cancer- and heart disease-fighting compounds.
    Photo by iStock
  • Eat peanut butter on whole grain toast to get all nine essential amino acids.
    Photo by Fotolia/Baiba Opule
  • Eating raspberries and chocolate together can improve heart health.
    Photo by iStock

Many of the dishes humans have eaten for generations—such as rice and beans, or tomatoes drizzled with olive oil—have withstood the test of time not simply because the ingredients taste delicious together. Health experts believe we enjoy these combinations because they’re more nutritious together than they are on their own. The concept is called “food synergy,” and it explains how two foods can be greater than the sum of their parts. Here are some of the most powerful food synergies currently known to science.

Fish + Broccoli

Fish contains the mineral selenium, and broccoli is rich in a disease-fighting compound known as sulforaphane. Research shows that selenium and sulforaphane together are 13 times more effective at slowing cancer cell growth than when eaten alone.

Bananas + Yogurt

Bananas contain inulin; research indicates inulin fuels the growth of yogurt’s healthy bacteria, which helps regulate digestion and boost immunity.

Tomatoes + Olive Oil or Cheese

Cancer- and heart disease-fighting compounds called carotenoids (the most well-known of which is lycopene) are found in abundance in tomatoes. Because they’re fat-soluble, they’re more available to our bodies when
we eat them with fats such as olive oil or mozzarella.

Vinegar + Rice

Vinegar decreases rice’s ability to raise blood sugar levels by 20 to 40 percent. Consider eating a stir-fry with a vinegar- based sauce or a brown rice casserole with a salad and vinegar dressing.

Apples + Cranberries

These Thanksgiving staples are rich in a wide variety of antioxidants, including quercetin and anthocyanidins; research shows that when we eat these foods together, their antioxidant activity is significantly higher than if we eat the foods separately.

Green Tea+ Lemon

The vitamin C in lemon makes more of the catechins (a type of antioxidant) in green tea available to our bodies.

Raspberries + Chocolate

Scientists have discovered that when raspberries and chocolate are paired together, their disease-fighting flavonoids (quercetin in raspberries and catechin in chocolate) are even more effective at thinning the blood and improving heart health.

Turmeric + Black Pepper

The spice turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties—it’s being studied for its potential to fight cancer, improve liver function, lower cholesterol and stave off Alzheimer’s disease. When we combine it with black pepper, our bodies absorb 1,000 times more curcumin (turmeric’s active ingredient) than when turmeric is consumed alone.

Blueberries + Walnuts

Blueberries contain phytochemicals known as anthocyanins that protect the brain from oxidative damage, and walnuts are a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids that help make us smarter. Research has shown that these compounds are even more powerful at sharpening memory and improving communication between brain cells when they work together.

Whole Grain Bread+ Peanut Butter

Together, these two foods contain all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies need to build bones, muscles and hormones.

Chicken + Carrots

Chicken contains zinc, which is what our bodies need to efficiently metabolize the beta-carotene in carrots into vitamin A, a nutrient we need for healthy skin, strong eyes and a robust immune system.

Garlic + Onions

The organosulfur compounds in garlic and onions are more powerful in combination than alone. Together, they help remove plaque from arteries and keep blood vessels flexible and healthy.

Rosemary + Steak

Marinate your steak with rosemary before cooking: The herb is rich in antioxidants such as rosmarinic acid and carnosic acid that help neutralize carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that form when steak reaches temperatures of 325 degrees or higher.

Eggs + Cheese or Milk

The vitamin D in egg yolks makes the calcium in dairy more available to our bodies—important for bones and heart health as well. A study conducted by Mother Earth News in 2008 confirmed that pastured hens lay eggs with higher concentrations of vitamin D than those raised in confinement. Learn more at

Oatmeal + Oranges

Phenols (a plant compound) in oatmeal and vitamin C in oranges both lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Eaten together, their ability to improve cholesterol and prevent heart disease is four times greater than what they’re capable of individually. (Try cooking oatmeal in orange juice instead of water.)

Salmon + Red Wine

Plant compounds in grapes known as polyphenols do more than promote good circulation—they also help our bodies absorb more of the brain-healthy omega-3s in fish.

Garlic + Fish

Both of these foods fight inflammation and disease, but together, they’re even more powerful: Research has shown that a combination of garlic and fish lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol more effectively than eating the foods on their own.

Lemon + Spinach

The vitamin C in lemons helps our bodies absorb more of spinach’s plant-based iron, a mineral that prevents mood swings and promotes happiness.

Red Wine + Almonds

Together, the antioxidant resveratrol in red wine and the vitamin E in almonds boost the body’s ability to thin the blood and improve the health of blood vessel linings.

Beet Greens + Chickpeas

Chickpeas are a good source of vitamin B6, which helps our bodies absorb the magnesium found in beet greens (B6 helps facilitate the transport of magnesium across cell membranes). These nutrients work together in the body to ease the symptoms of PMS and ADHD.

Broccoli + Pine Nuts

The vitamin C in broccoli helps keep the vitamin E in pine nuts active and potent.

Excerpted from The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body by Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey, M.D.

8/29/2014 12:04:10 AM

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Peggy McMahan
8/18/2014 11:29:51 AM

We've known that pairing foods makes them more nutritious so that you're better able to absorb the vitamins and minerals in them. There are a few pairings in this short article that I didn't know about. I've been sprinkling vinegar on spinach, but after reading this I'll switch to lemon.



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