Food synergy is how components in food—like phytochemicals, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals—work together in your body for maximum health benefit. Food synergy is like adding 1 + 1 and getting 4. In other words, it is about getting the biggest bang for your food buck.
One of the underlying mechanisms of food synergy is supporting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions in the body, which may be particularly beneficial to anti-aging. Eating fruits and vegetables on the regular, may reduce the risk of inflammation and improve antioxidant efficiency because these foods contain a wide variety of active plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, many of which have synergy together.
Enjoy all parts of the plant
We can get so focused on the health benefits of a certain vitamin or nutrient that we miss a crucial link. For example, there are key plant compounds (plus fiber) in the peels/skin on produce and in the membranes between orange segments, etc. Consuming the skin with the flesh/pulp can boost your total intake of these potentially powerful nutrients and this tends to result in higher intakes of antioxidants. It is important to leave the skin on red grapes intact, for one example, because that is where it has a high concentration of resveratrol (an antioxidant phytochemical with potential anti-cancer action.) This is the main reason why I rarely take the skin off potatoes, carrots, zucchini, apples, pears, and more, and why I enjoy oranges and mandarin oranges as segments including the membranes around the segments and some of the pith from the peel. In fact, I go out of my way to use the zest from citrus to add flavor to baked products, pancakes, sauces, and dressings! This is all part of enjoying all parts of the plant and as a bonus, our kitchens will also be as close to zero waste for produce as possible!
Synergy between plants
Over the past 15 years, research has discovered many examples of how certain parts of different foods can produce amazing results when eaten together. Here are a few examples.
Raspberry + Adzuki beans
This combination exhibited multiple synergistic interactions in various antioxidant lab tests in amounts much greater than the sum of one plus the other (Wang et al., 2011)
Broccoli + Tomato (the whole tomato, including skin is best)
One study found prostate tumors grew much less in rats fed tomato and broccoli powder than in rats that ate diets containing just one of those powders or cancer-fighting substances that had been isolated from tomatoes or broccoli. Separately tomatoes and broccoli appear to have cancer-fighting potential but together they seem to bring out the best in each other—maximizing this potential cancer-fighting effect. (J Nutr 2005 Dec)
Salad Veggies + Avocado (monounsaturated fat)
Eating a little “good fat” along with your salad vegetables helps your body absorb 4-13 times more protective phytochemicals like lycopene from tomatoes, carotenes from carrots and lutein from dark green vegetables, according to multiple studies. One study tested this with spinach salads using good fats from avocado or canola oil-containing salad dressings. (J Nutr 2005 Mar; 135(3): 431-6)
Grapes + Onions
Combining onion and grapes resulted in a synergistic suppression of breast cancer cell growth in laboratory studies, compared with either onion or grape treatment alone. (J Med Food 2013 Dec; 16(12): 1138-45)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil + certain Mediterranean Vegetables
Using extra virgin olive oil in the cooking of certain Mediterranean veggies (potato, tomato, eggplant, and pumpkin) increased the phenolic antioxidant capacity according to research conducted by researchers in Spain and Mexico. The increase in antioxidant capacity of the vegetables can be attributed to both the increase in phenol concentration due to higher availability and an increase in extra virgin olive oil absorption (Food Chemistry 2015 Volume 188 pages 430-438).
Check out @therecipedoctor for recipes with a food synergy focus the first week of April 2021!
The Bottom Line
The more you know about food synergy and how components within food and between foods work together for maximum health benefits, the more it makes sense to eat more whole plant foods and to rely on foods first and foremost for the nutrients we need. For many years, the science of nutrition has focused on specific pieces of the puzzle instead of the power inherent in the whole picture. Because there are synergies we have not yet discovered, the only way to ensure we are including as many helpful synergies as possible is to eat a variety of whole plant foods. The power is in the packaging—plant foods working together!