How to Achieve Food Synergy

There are thousands of phytochemicals that will never make it onto the side of a cereal box but may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases—and those are just the ones we know about. Whole plant foods have consistently been found to be protective, so it’s reasonable for scientists to try to find the “magic bullet” active ingredient that can be sold in a pill, but “[p]ills or tablets simply cannot mimic this balanced natural combination of phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables.” When isolated out, the compound may lose its activity or behave differently. The antioxidant and anticancer activities of plant foods are thought to derive from the “additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables,” meaning the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts. This helps explain why a pill can’t replace the complex combination of phytochemicals present in whole plant foods.

As T. Colin Campbell has pointed out, more than a hundred trials “overwhelmingly show no long-term benefit for vitamin supplements, along with worrisome findings that certain vitamins may even increase disease occurrence for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.” Supplementation with fish oil, for example, appears useless or, even worse, “posing increased risk for diabetes,” yet the science doesn’t seem to matter. People continue to buy them. “The public desire for quick fixes through pills…is overwhelming, especially when money can be made.”

Each plant has thousands of different phytochemicals, as well as entirely different phytonutrient profiles. So, there may be synergistic effects when eating different foods together, too. Eating beta-carotene in carrot form is more beneficial than in pill form. because of all the other compounds in the carrot that may synergize with the beta-carotene. Well, when we dip that carrot in hummus, we suddenly have the thousands of carrot compounds mixing with the thousands of chickpea compounds. So what happens if we mix different fruits with different vegetables or different beans?

As you can see in my video Food Synergy, combining foods across different categories increased the likelihood of synergy. For example, a study showed the antioxidant powers of raspberries and adzuki beans. If there were a strictly additive effect, the expected combined antioxidant power would simply be that of the raspberries plus that of the adzuki beans. However, the observed combined antioxidant power was actually greater than the sum of one plus the other.

What about cancer-fighting effects? The study was repeated, but, this time, different combinations of food were dripped on breast cancer cells growing in a petri dish. For some foods, the same synergistic effects were found. Grapes, for example, can suppress the growth of breast cancer cells about 30 percent, but onions worked even better, cutting breast cancer cell growth in half. One would assume that if we added half the grapes with half the onion, we’d get a result somewhere in the middle between the two. Instead, the researchers found that cancer cell growth was suppressed by up to 70 percent with that combination. The whole plus the whole was greater than the sum of the whole parts. Given these findings, did the researchers recommend people eat a variety of foods? Perhaps adding some raisins along with chopped red onions to our next salad? Where’s the money in that? No, the reason the researchers were investigating the different types of interactions was “to identify mixtures that hold synergistic interactions that can ultimately lead to the development of functional foods”—maybe something like grape-flavored Funyuns.


Why should we care about the antioxidant power of foods? See

If you’re not familiar with this concept of reductionism, be sure to check out some of these other videos: Industry Response to Plants Not Pills, Why Is Nutrition So Commercialized?, and Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Why Intact Grains are Even Better than Whole Grains

Fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and dark green leafy vegetables lead the pack. Each of the top five so-called powerhouse fruits and vegetables were greens. If we blend them up in a smoothie (or soup or sauce), we’re taking the food with the most nutrition and breaking all the cells to dump that nutrition into our bloodstream. Chewing is good, but blending is better in terms of digestive efficiency and nutrient absorption.

But if we take in all that nutrition and none makes it down to our colon might we be starving our microbial selves? The reason intact grains, beans, and nuts are better than bread, hummus, and nut butters is that no matter how well we chew, intact food particles make it down to your colon where they can offer a smorgasbord for our good bacteria. If our grains, beans, and nuts are finely ground up into flour or paste before we eat it, we may be leaving our gut flora high and dry. Would the same be true for fruits and vegetables?

There are special classes of phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables that appear to protect against colon cancer. They can escape digestion and absorption in our stomach and small intestine, and end up in our colon to act as prebiotics. No matter how much we chew, they stay attached to the fiber. But if we use a blender, might we prematurely detach these nutrients? No. Even if you blend in a high-speed blender for five minutes, the phytonutrients remain bound to the fiber for transport down to your colon bacteria. You can do smoothie experiments on people with ileostomy bags that drain the contents of the small intestine and show that most of the polyphenol phytonutrients make it out intact, so we don’t have to worry we may be robbing Peter to pay Paul when we blend fruits and vegetables. Is there any downside to smoothies, then?

Just as smaller particle size may improve digestive efficiency and gastrointestinal absorption of nutrients from fruits and vegetables, the same may be true for grains. There is, however, a concern that this could boost starch availability and cause a blood sugar spike. In my video Are Green Smoothies Bad for You?, I show you the rise and fall of blood sugar and insulin over four hours after eating a half-cup of brown rice compared with ground brown rice flour (kind of like a cream of brown rice hot cereal). Consuming brown rice flour gives you twice the blood sugar and twice the insulin spike compared to eating the rice intact. Same amount of food, just in a different form. This is why intact whole grains are better than even whole grain flour products.

Simply chewing really well can boost the glycemic and insulin response. If you chew rice really well compared to chewing it normally, the smaller rice particles empty out of your stomach faster, producing greater blood sugar and insulin responses. It’s ironic that there were health crusaders pushing people to chew more to digest their food better, but if what you’re chewing is a five cheese pizza, maybe it’s better not to digest so well. Believe it or not, some have even suggested that diabetics and obese persons should not chew their food so much. But, swallowing diced food without chewing would not only reduce the pleasure of eating—people could choke! Despite this, they suggest it could be a simple way to “allow patients to reduce blood glucose [sugar] levels without fundamentally altering their diets and may thus prove more acceptable” than having to do the unthinkable—just eat high fiber foods like beans, which have been shown to blunt blood sugar spikes.

What about blended beans like hummus? Unlike grains, blending legumes doesn’t affect their glycemic response. So, let’s circle back to the smoothie question: Is fruit more like grains or more like beans? If you liquefy fruit in a blender to make a smoothie, do you risk spiking your blood sugar too high? To find out, watch my Green Smoothies: What Does the Science Say? video.


My general take on beans is simple: the more beans, the better—however you get them. For more information, watch my videos Beans and the Second Meal Effect, The Hispanic Paradox: Why Do Latinos Live Longer?, and Canned Beans or Cooked Beans?.

Want more on smoothies? Here it is:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: