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Food Synergy

Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian

The old saying attributed to Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” expresses synergy’s basic meaning. Likewise, food combinations can work in synergy to enhance flavor and our health.

Our body relies on many pathways working together to function optimally. Imagine your inner workings as a maze of wheels interlocking as they turn. Each needs certain nutrients, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, for example. Depletion of any of these nutrients may affect the turning of the wheels. When all nutrients are present in sufficient amounts, they work synergistically, harmoniously supporting our wellbeing. The wheels turn smoothly, supporting optimal health.

Food synergy can help those wheels turn by making nutrients more available for us.

Following are examples of food combinations that enhance the absorption of beneficial nutrients.

Green Tea/Matcha and Lemon Juice

Citrus juice gives a boost to green tea antioxidants. A study from Purdue University has shown that adding lemon juice to green tea enhances beneficial antioxidants’ availability. Green tea contains the bioactive epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), praised for antioxidant benefits, including heart health and cancer prevention.

Turmeric, Black Pepper, Olive Oil and Heat

Turmeric contains a powerful antioxidant, curcumin, which helps fight inflammation. But it is not easily absorbed in the body. Piperin, a phytonutrient in pepper, and the fat in olive oil both act to enhance curcumin absorption. Roasting turmeric also increases bioavailability.

Carrots and Olive Oil

The fat in olive oil helps with the absorption of vitamin A in carrots. A bonus, the bioactives in carrots (lutein, beta-carotene, falcarinol and more) remain active with cooking.

Avocados and Red Peppers

Avocados are another healthy fat, and red peppers are another vitamin A source, so the same principle holds with increased vitamin A absorption when they are combined. Vitamin A-rich vegetables are often orange, such as sweet potatoes and winter squash.

Spinach and Lemon Juice

Get more iron from your foods! Vitamin C boosts the iron we can get from food. The iron in plants such as spinach is blocked from absorption by naturally occurring compounds. Vitamin C helps change the situation so that more of the plant-based iron (non-heme) is absorbed. A generous squeeze of lemon juice or a serving of broccoli or other vitamin C-rich food will do the trick.

This is especially helpful for vegetarians because the body does not absorb plant-based iron as readily as it does the iron found in meats, known as heme iron. Adding vitamin C-rich foods to meals will help you absorb iron from any food on your plate.

More Vitamin C Rich Foods

Olive Oil and Tomato

The Italians are onto something! While all tomatoes have a good amount of lycopene, cooking them increases bioavailability, and olive oil increases absorption. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant with benefits to the skin, heart health and cancer prevention. Lycopene is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava.

Ultimate Synergy

The ultimate food synergy may be a balanced plate. Research has repeatedly shown that our eating habits influence our health. The Mediterranean-type diet is an eating style that repeatedly does well in studies. It has a balance of healthy fats, colorful fresh and local vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and a combination of plant and animal proteins.

Need help choosing the right foods for you? Reach out to University Dietitian Terry Passano at

Grilling: Food Synergy to the Rescue!

Plus Grilling Recipes for Vegetables, Fruit and Proteins

We all love to grill, don’t we? It’s a summer tradition. Let the flames begin! Sometimes those coals get out of hand causing too much char and our food is burnt and black. We know that charred meat poses possible health risks; it may be carcinogenic. But all is not lost. There are ways to make the grill healthy again. How we grill is as important as what we grill when it comes to our health. Because how you grill can either increase or decrease potential carcinogens at the grill.

What’s the problem? The combination of meat and intense heat produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals form when proteins and sugars react with high heat. HCAs are found in the burned, crispy outer layer of the cooked meat, and PAH’s come from the smoke and fire caused by the fat dripping on the hot surface.

How do we fix it?

  • Marinate for at least one hour. This lowers the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Rosemary is powerful due to its antioxidants. The more rosemary, the more significant the reduction in HCAs.Other effective marinades include Caribbean spices and a combination of lemon juice, garlic and onion.
  • Keep the flame away from the meat! Wait for those coals to flame off and keep the gas grill flames down. When searing meat in a pan, lower the temperature.
  • Cook over indirect heat. Use hotter parts of the grill to brown and move meats to lower heat for lower intensity cooking.
  • Avoid overcooking. Keep a close eye on the grill,use a food thermometer. Try partially cooking meats before grilling. The reduced time on the grill can reduce HCA formation while still giving that great grill flavor.
  • Avoid overcooking. Keep a close eye on the grill,use a food thermometer. Try partially cooking meats before grilling. The reduced time on the grill can reduce HCA formation while still giving that great grill flavor.
  • After getting a good sear on your grilled meat turn it continuously. This can substantially reduce HCA formation compared to less flipping.
  • Remove the charred part of the meat before eating.
  • Grill vegetables and fruits. They are delicious and don’t form HCAs and PAHs. Balance your plate with colorful grilled vegetables and fruits!

Let’s Get Cookin’!

Take a look at this guide to grilling everything from burgers to peaches

Meat Recipes

Grilling Fruits and Vegetables

Grilling Fruits and Vegetables

Marinades: here and here