“The approach to nutrition which treats essential micronutrients in a vacuum is a gross oversimplification and has led to the prevalence of single nutrient supplements like vitamin C pills,” says Daniel DeCiccio, chemist, biomedical engineer, and co-founder of VitaScript, a new start-up focused on personalized nutrition on the micronutrient (vitamin/mineral) level. “Research and clinical trials have shown that these isolated nutrients don’t create the desired effect and even have adverse reactions.”
It’s best to take the nutrients from food sources, says DeCiccio — a concept referred to as food synergy. “For optimal health, we want to look at the interplay of multiple nutrients in the diet together,” he says. “The chemistry of nutrients together can be very different than a single nutrient. The net benefit from the healthy food sources is more beneficial than the individual nutrients taken alone.”
To that end, we asked DeCiccio to single out 10 potent examples of food synergy.
1. Whole grains
Whole-grain fiber is linked to lower mortality in part due to active compounds in the aleurone layer and bran. The whole grain is needed for the health benefits. Refined grains and supplemental fiber don’t offer this same benefit.
A study showed that a cancer cell line was inhibited by the extracts of the apple skin and flesh combined, not by the amount of vitamin C in an apple.
Many multivitamins for men include lycopene for prostate health, but eating tomatoes, a great source of lycopene, showed greater benefits on prostate health than the same amount of lycopene alone. They key may be the synergistic activity of other phytochemicals and lycopene.
Pomegranate juice was found to have much greater biological activity against prostate, colon, and oral cancers than polyphenols (antioxidants) alone.
One of the major anticarcinogenic (prevents cancer) compounds in broccoli is sulforaphane. A study in rats has shown that the anticarcinogenic effects of this compound is greater in broccoli than on its own in pure form.
Vitamin C was found to be better absorbed if consumed from citrus rather than a pure supplement. Vitamin C is well known to help increase iron absorption which helps prevent anemia. If you depend on plant based iron sources, make sure you are eating vitamin C with your iron.
The complex interplay of antioxidant phenolics in coffee act together and may even help protect from atherosclerosis. The interplay of these compounds is key to the health benefits.
One study shows the bioavailability of β-carotene (source of Vitamin A) was rough double (5.1% vs 9.5%) for whole leaf vs liquefied spinach respectively. Research concluded the food matrix (the structure where the nutrients are incorporated) of leafy spinach significantly reduced the bioavailability of this key nutrient. Even when fiber was added to the liquefied spinach, bioavailability did not drastically change. For this nutrient, juice may actually be a better source when it comes to Vitamin A.
9. Red wine
Resveratrol is an antioxidant most widely associated with red wine. Although supplements of resveratrol have been selling through the roof, less resveratrol is more beneficial. A study published in Science Translational Medicine found that low levels of resveratrol, closer to what is found in foods like red wine, was actually better at reducing cancer than higher levels.
10. The Mediterranean diet
A recent study in neurology showed elderly individuals on a Mediterranean diet had brain volume 5 years younger than their counterparts who did not eat a Mediterranean diet. The researchers pointed out specifically that they believed more fish and less meat sources were key. Taking fish oil does not confer the benefits; you need to actually eat fish.