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Q. Are there nutritional benefits when various nutrient-rich foods are combined?

A. Synergy in Action:
Some Examples

Iron + vitamin C:
kidney beans + bell peppers; fortified cereal + papaya

Magnesium + vitamin B6:
beet greens + chickpeas; almonds + fortified oatmeal

Inulin + beneficial bacteria:
asparagus + cheese

Vitamin B12 + folate:
eggs + spinach; salmon + peas

Vitamin C + vitamin E:
broccoli + sweet potato

Vitamin E + selenium:
kale + tuna; sunflower seeds + cottage cheese

Carotenoids + fat:
romaine lettuce + olive oil

If fish is good for you and broccoli is good for you, then fish with broccoli must be twice as good for you, right? In fact, together the mineral selenium in fish (like tuna, flounder or shrimp) and the phytochemical sulforaphane in broccoli are up to 13 times more effective at combating cancer than either nutrient would be alone.

Scientists refer to this phenomenon as food synergy: nutrients working in concert to produce a health benefit far greater than the sum of its parts. Because more and more examples of this type of cooperation between nutrients have been identified, the focus in nutrition research has shifted. “Ten years ago we would look for one variable, now we look at dietary patterns, “ says Beverly Clevidence, research leader at the USDA’s Diet and Human Performance laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

Synergy between nutrients takes place in a number of ways. Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron, for example, turning foods like red peppers and quinoa, or steak and potatoes, into power couples. Inulin, a type of carbohydrate found in bananas and other foods, serves as nourishment for beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt’s Bifidus, which aids digestion and boosts immunity.

Just as important as combining the right foods is eating a range of foods, because variety gives you the benefit of food synergies that may be as yet undiscovered. “You don’t find a single nutrient in a single food; foods come as packages of nutrients,” says Clevidence, “and the nutrients we know about don’t tell the whole story.”
—Cheryl Redmond

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