When you think about delicious food pairings, a few might come to mind: nuts and dark chocolate; grilled cheese and tomato soup; avocado and toast; chips and salsa; the list goes on.
But what you may not have realized is many classic food pairings from around the globe actually have a distinct nutritional purpose. This is a concept known as nutrient synergy, or the idea that by combining certain foods, they become healthier as a pair than they would be individually.
“Nutrient synergy describes the interaction between two or more nutrients that results in various biological benefits,” says Whitney English Tabaie M.S., RDN, CPT. “For example, when iron and vitamin C are paired together, it increases non-heme iron absorption by three to six times.”
Nature offers great examples of foods that are synergistically powerful, too: Fruits and vegetables have complementary phytochemicals that promote high antioxidant activity. Nutrient synergy is also the reason you’ll often find calcium-rich cow’s milk products fortified with vitamin D: “Calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin D are another group of complementary nutrients that are beneficial to bone health and work synergistically to build strong bones,” says English Tabaie. “Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, while vitamin K is necessary for bone mineralization.”
Indeed, examples of potent synergistic nutrient interactions abound in nature and cultures worldwide. The following food pairs offer an exciting glimpse into some eating customs that maximize nutrient synergy, boost flavor, and sustain tradition.