Foods that work better together
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
Foods often have a bigger health punch when not working on their lonesome. Use these recipes to harness the power of food pairing to make your diet extra nutritious—and delicious.
Spaghetti and meatballs, pancakes and maple syrup, peanut butter and jam: these are the Batman-and-Robins of the food world—items that just belong together. Beyond pairing up great flavours, what you should also know is that when certain foods are eaten in unison, the nutritional firepower of the meal is amplified even further. It’s called food synergy: compounds in foods interact in a way that brings about benefits that can’t be achieved in the individual food on its own. It’s like adding one plus one and getting three: the total is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is one reason nutrients such as vitamin E and calcium, when taken in isolation, often don’t have the same protective powers as when they’re consumed from a mixture of whole foods. When it comes to good nutrition, the more the merrier. To start reaping the benefits of food synergy, whip up these good-chemistry recipes that can help your health grow exponentially.
When it comes to nutrition, these combos prove that two heads are better than one.
Research shows that consuming vegetables in the presence of whole eggs enhances our absorption of fat-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin E, lycopene, and beta carotene found in tomatoes, spinach, and carrots. The lipids that are naturally present in egg yolks likely help make veggies more potent—a good reason to serve up garden omelettes or add some protein to your salads with sliced hard-boiled egg.
Here’s more reason to go nuts for nutrient-dense kale. A 2017 study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming kale in the presence of peanut butter can increase how much vitamin A we obtain from the leafy green. Vitamin A can be made in the body from beta carotene found in spades in kale, which is better absorbed in the presence of the fat in peanut butter. Kale salad with peanut dressing is a good way to bring these nutritional friends together. Similarly, research shows that the fat in avocado can bolster absorption rates of beta carotene in carrots.
The next time you’re serving up starchy foods such as rice, quinoa, pasta, and potatoes, consider sipping some green tea. The signature antioxidant in green tea, EGCG or epigallocatechin gallate, may reduce the rise in post-meal blood sugar, which may confer some protection against metabolic conditions such as diabetes.
Vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables makes it easier for us to absorb the form of iron (nonheme) found in plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, and whole grains. So top off your morning bowl of oatmeal with kiwi and strawberries, and pack your bean-heavy soups and chili with plenty of vitamin C-rich veggies such as bell peppers.
A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate iron-fortified cereal with kiwi fruit, which is especially rich in vitamin C, were able to raise their iron levels. Preliminary research suggests that probiotics, like those in yogurt, may also help bolster iron absorption.
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut are good sources of beneficial critters known as probiotics, but they’re hungry and need a food source to flourish in our guts.
Prebiotics are special forms of fibre that serve as a fuel source for the friendly bugs so they can work harder to improve your digestive and immune health. Sources of prebiotics include asparagus, chicory, dandelion greens, onions, and not-yet-ripe bananas. Initial research also suggests that almond skins can act as a prebiotic that bugs can munch on.
More proof of food synergy in motion: myrosinase (a compound that gives radishes, arugula, mustard greens, horseradish, wasabi, and broccoli sprouts their peppery kick) appears to improve the absorption rate of sulforaphane, the main cancer-fighting chemical present in broccoli.