Food Synergy: An Operational Concept for Understanding Nutrition

David R. Jacobs Jr., Myron D. Gross and Linda C. Tapsell

Research and practice in nutrition relate to food and its constituents, often as supplements. In food, however, the biological constituents are coordinated. We propose that ‘‘thinking food first’’ results in more effective nutrition research and policy. The concept of food synergy provides the necessary theoretical underpinning. The evidence for health benefit appears stronger when put together in a synergistic dietary pattern than for individual foods or food constituents. A review of dietary supplementation suggests that although supplements may be beneficial in states of insufficiency, the safe middle ground for consumption likely is food. Also, food provides a buffer during absorption. Constituents delivered by foods taken directly from their biological environment may have different effects from those formulated through technologic processing, but either way health benefits are likely to be determined by the total diet. The concept of food synergy is based on the proposition that the inter- relations between constituents in foods are significant. This significance is dependent on the balance between constituents within the food, how well the constituents survive digestion, and the extent to which they appear biologically active at the cellular level. Many examples are provided of superior effects of whole foods over their isolated constituents. The food synergy concept supports the idea of dietary variety and of selecting nutrient-rich foods. The more we understand about our own biology and that of plants and animals, the better we will be able to discern the combinations of foods, rather than supplements, which best promote health.

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