What is Food Synergy Nutrition?

The saying “teamwork makes the dream work” might be cheesy, but it’s also almost universally true, and it even applies to things like vitamins and minerals.  Often, our approach to nutrition and supplementation is very linear; we receive blood test results that indicate we have a calcium deficiency, so we start taking a calcium supplement. This might seem like a logical approach at first glance, but vitamins and minerals are often interdependent on each other and require appropriate levels of other vitamins in order to achieve the full effect. When different components in our food work together to provide more results combined than they would individually, this is called food synergy. Food synergy nutrition is a way of fueling the body that considers how different foods, vitamins, and minerals collaborate to improve health. 

By the Numbers:


23%: Mediterranean diets, which incorporate many of the principles of food synergy nutrition, are associated with a 23 percent lower risk of early death from all causes.


4: Number of major carotenoids found in tomatoes, which have food synergy as a group. Tomatoes are one of the few fruits and vegetables that contain all four of the major carotenoids.


3: Number of B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) that when combined reduce the level of an amino acid that can damage artery linings and negatively impact heart health.


What is food synergy?


David Jacobs, PhD., coined the term “food synergy” in a 2003 study, when he described food synergy as the “additive or more than additive influences of foods and food constituents on health.” He stated that “foods and food patterns act synergistically to influence the risk of several chronic diseases.” What does that mean in layman’s terms? It means that certain nutrients can be paired together to bring out the best in each other and receive additional health benefits above and beyond the individual benefits of each component if the food was consumed individually. In Jacobs’ definition, the term “additive” is meant to refer to a complicated system working together, while “more than additive” refers to mathematical synergy. 


Where did the concept of food synergy come from?


Food synergy was first defined by Jacobs, but the concept has been right in front of our faces for millennia. Have you ever noticed that certain foods are eaten together or in a sequential order in certain cultures, such as turmeric and black pepper? Food has evolved over time, just like everything else, and its components, nutrients, and compounds have changed accordingly. One study states that the composite nature of food, which serves the life of the organism that becomes food (such as a bell pepper), also serves the life of the eater, and this concept is central to the concept of food synergy. The concept of food synergy indicates that foods work together to promote health and homeostasis in the body. The nutritional composition of foods reflect their biology; for example, nuts and other foods that are high in unsaturated fats typically have high numbers of antioxidants, which help protect the food against the instability of the fat. Looking for these types of relationships between foods and their nutrients is the concept of food synergy. 


What is food synergy nutrition?


Since we know that certain vitamins and minerals provide more benefits when eaten together than when eaten separately, it makes sense to base nutritional principles around this idea. Food synergy nutrition is the intentional combination of certain whole foods, vitamins, and minerals in order to promote good health. Food synergy nutrition recommends getting as many vitamins and minerals as possible from whole, real foods, rather than nutritional supplements, because studies show that our bodies are better able to absorb these essential nutrients when they come from food. From a biological perspective, our bodies have been designed to digest food and obtain vitamins and minerals directly from the source, rather than a supplement, so it stands to reason that people would benefit more from the consumption of food than supplements. However, another benefit of using food instead of supplements for nutrition is that supplements may provide too much of certain vitamins and minerals when combined with a person’s daily diet, which can cause health issues. For example, taking at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day was found to be connected to an increased risk of death from cancer. When we obtain vitamins and minerals from food, it is much more difficult to eat too much of a certain supplement based on the limits of our appetites.


What are some examples of food synergy nutrition?


Examples of cultural food synergy nutrition abound, and you may be surprised to find out that throughout history, foods aren’t just paired together because they taste great - their pairing also serves a deeper purpose. Examples of food synergy nutrition pairings include:

  • Green tea with lemon: Adding lemon juice to your tea is more than just delicious; it can help you fight cancer. Green tea is full of a substance called catechins, which help reduce your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol and also boost immunity. Lemon juice has been shown to help boost our body’s utilization of catechins by more than five times.
  • Tomatoes and broccoli: Need another reason to eat your veggies? Tomatoes are known to contain a prostate-cancer fighting substance called lycopene, while broccoli is full of vitamin C and beta-carotene. While both foods are good for prostate health overall,  eating tomatoes and broccoli together was found to be more effective at slowing the growth of prostate cancer tumors than either food is on its own. 
  • Tomatoes and olive oil: Is there a more delicious and flavorful combination than tomatoes and olive oil? Tomato skin is packed with powerful phytochemicals and carotenoids in the skin, and your body is able to absorb the nutrients when the tomatoes are cooked and combined with a healthy fat, like olive oil.
  • Dark chocolate and apples: We probably don’t need to beg you to add a little more dark chocolate to your diet, but in this case, make sure it's at least 70 percent cacao. Dark chocolate, like green tea, is rich in catechins, and apples contain a substance called quercetin that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Combining apples with dark chocolate helps them to protect against heart disease and cancer by inhibiting the adherence of platelets to collagen.
  • Oatmeal and blueberries: Blueberries are certainly a superfood in their own right, as they are packed with vitamin C, fiber, and manganese as well as a substance called ellagic acid that can help prevent certain cancers.  Oatmeal boasts heart health benefits thanks to its supply of phytochemicals that prevent free radicals from promoting plaque build up in the arteries. When paired together, oatmeal and blueberries work together to further decrease the risk of plaque buildup, reducing the risk of heart disease.
  • Garlic and fish: If you seasoned your fish with garlic the last time you cooked it, you likely helped lower your cholesterol! Fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, protein, and selenium, such as salmon, have been shown to help lower triglycerides and blood pressure. When consumed with garlic, the nutritional benefits are expanded, as garlic and fish combined can help lower triglycerides, reduce LDL cholesterol, and lower total cholesterol numbers. 
  • Spinach and lemon: Have you tried adding a lemon dressing or lemon juice to your salad lately? You should, because while spinach is chock full of plant-based iron, it can be difficult for the body to absorb without a little assistance from vitamin C. Adding lemon juice to your salad or fruit high in vitamin C, like strawberries, helps your body to convert the plant-based iron in spinach into a more usable form.
  • Turmeric and black pepper: How about adding some health benefits when you season your food? Turmeric, which has a number of health benefits, including protection against diabetes, is most effective when combined with black pepper, which helps to increase the bioavailability of turmeric’s most powerful compound. When used in supplements, you’ll usually find turmeric paired with black pepper extract or another pepper compound, so use the same trick when you’re preparing food.
  • Rosemary and grilled meat: Did you know that charring meat over an open flame can cause the production of carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents? It’s true. Carcinogens can form in meat when it is cooked at a high temperature, and burnt or charred pieces of meat deliver these carcinogens in their purest form. Adding rosemary to your meat can actually prevent the development of these dangerous carcinogens, because the antioxidants contained in rosemary stop the carcinogens from forming. You don’t have to use a lot, either, and rosemary extract is just as effective.

  • Did you know?


    • The best way to get your recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals is through real food, not supplements. Our bodies are designed to absorb vitamins and minerals from food through our digestive process rather than from a supplement. GEM is a whole food vitamin that gives you the nutrients you need in a package your body can actually use.
    • The 90s told us that fat is bad for you, but we now know that eating healthy fats, like monounsaturated fats, helps our body to absorb vitamins and minerals. Add a little olive oil to your salad tonight!