More Than the Sum of Its Parts
It is unarguable that many foods have protective and disease preventative properties. We’ve all heard about the wonders of blueberries and broccoli, which are, no doubt, foods we would do well to include in our diets. However, if health is the goal then it may be wise to broaden our horizons.
Most research into the effects of food on health focuses on one ingredient and sometimes one component of that ingredient, such as the lycopene in tomatoes or the resveratrol in red wine. However, this is not representative of real life. For a start there are only a limited number of nutrients and bioactive chemicals that have been discovered and researched. Even investigating the effects of a food as a whole is not translatable to the real world as foods are eaten with other foods, not in isolation. Plus there are the effects of cooking methods, the gut microbiota of the consumer and the effects of stress and other health issues on digestion and absorption. It’s clear that the effects of a food on health cannot be determined by its individual nutrients (1).
Reduce Oxidation, Reduce Disease
Superfood status is usually given to foods that are especially rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralise free radicals, which are a major cause of disease. In the process of neutralising free radicals antioxidants can become pro-oxidants. The best way to neutralise these newly formed oxidants is with other antioxidants. The wider variety of antioxidants you eat the greater chance you have of neutralising a wide range of oxidants. This means eating a broad diversity of foods is more effective than limiting yourself to a few chosen superfoods.
Polyphenols, found in many plant foods, have well known antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. However, what is less well known is that these beneficial properties can be enhanced by combining them. For example combining several polyphenols with vitamins, minerals and amino acids has a greater effect than individual polyphenols (2).
Some Combinations To Try:
Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a powerful anti-cancer compound. For sulforaphane to be activated an enzyme called myrosinase needs to be present. Unfortunately, the myrosinase in broccoli is inactivated when broccoli is cooked. However, it turns out mustard seeds contain a more stable form of myrosinase which is not deactivated by heat. Hence, adding mustard seeds to cooked broccoli increases sulforaphane formation (3,4). In general, combining different cruciferous vegetables provides greater benefits than eating them separately (5). So, try combinations of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, rocket and mustard.
Adding oil to vegetables seems to be a good way of increasing the bioavailability of nutrients. For example, mixing shredded cabbage leaves with an oil based dressing results in a greater release of beneficial compounds from the cabbage (6). Oil also increases carotenoid bioavailability from foods such as spinach, carrots and papaya (7).
DHA is an anti-inflammatory omega 3 fat that is found in oily fish. It is needed for many aspects of health including a healthy brain. People who don’t eat fish can potentially make DHA from ALA which is found in seeds such as flax, chia and hemp. However, the conversion of ALA to DHA is limited so non fish eaters may become deficient in DHA. Curcumin, from turmeric, has the potential to increase the formation of DHA from ALA by activating the enzymes needed for the conversion. So vegans, vegetarians and non fish eaters could benefit from adding turmeric to their flax seed oil based dressings (8).
Pepper to the Rescue
While you are adding spices to your dressings you might want to add some freshly ground black pepper. The bioavailability of curcumin from turmeric is increased when in the presence of piperine from black pepper (9).
Additionally, research on rats with induced type 2 diabetes found that a combination of curcumin, piperine and quercetin led to lower body weight, reduced blood glucose and lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides after 28 days of treatment. The benefits of the 3 ingredients together were greater than curcumin alone (10). Quercetin is found in apples, red onions, tomatoes, red grapes and cranberries.
Whilst it’s easy to combine turmeric, pepper, oil and green vegetables in a meal there are some more unusual combinations that have been shown to have a synergistic effect. For example, combining onions and grapes results in an anti-cancer effect that is greater than either onions or grapes alone. Raspberries and aduki beans together demonstrate powerful antioxidant capacities (11).
If you don’t fancy these particular combinations the take home message is to eat a wide variety of plant foods, drizzle them with oil, and include some spices.
Bringing It All Together
Here’s a super-super food recipe to get you started.
Spiced Roasted Vegetables
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 cauliflower, cut into florets
1 broccoli head, cut into florets
2 red onions, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp tamari soy sauce
1 tbsp flax seed oil
2 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp French mustard
1 beef tomato, cut into bite sized pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan, add the mustard seeds and toast until they start to pop. Grind them in a pestle and mortar.
- Spread the cauliflower, broccoli and onion out on a baking tray (or two). Sprinkle over the ground mustard seeds and drizzle with olive oil and tamari. Stir well.
- Roast the vegetables in the oven on gas mark 6/210C for 35-40 minutes, stirring half way through.
- Stir together the flax seed oil, lemon juice, turmeric and mustard.
- Once the vegetables are cooked transfer them to a large bowl. Stir in the chopped tomato, pour over the flax oil dressing and season with salt and plenty of pepper.
- Delicious served hot or cold.
- 1. Thorning KT, Bertram HC, Bonjour JP et al. Whole dairy matrix or single nutrients in assessment of health effects: current evidence and knowledge gaps. Am J Clin Nutr, 2017; 105 (5): 1033
- 2. Niedzwiecki A, Roomi MW, Kalinovsky T, Rath M. Anticancer Efficacy of Polyphenols and Their Combinations. Nutrients. 2016 Sep 9;8(9). pii: E552.
- 3. Ghawi SK, Shen Y, Niranjan K, Methven L. Consumer acceptability and sensory profile of cooked broccoli with mustard seeds added to improve chemoprotective properties. J Food Sci. 2014 Sep;79(9):S1756-62.
- 4. Ghawi SK, Methyen L, Niranian K. The potential to intensify sulforaphane formation in cooked broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) using mustard seeds (Sinapis alba). Food Chem. 2013 Jun 1;138(2-3):1734-41.
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- 7. Mashurabad PC, Palika R, Jyrwa YW et al. Dietary fat composition, food matrix and relative polarity modulate the micellarization and intestinal uptake of carotenoids from vegetables and fruits. J Food Sci Technol. 2017 Feb;54(2):333-341.
- 8. Sugasini D, Lokesh BR. Curcumin and linseed oil co-delivered in phospholipid nanoemulsions enhances the levels of docosahexaenoic acid in serum and tissue lipids of rats. Prost. Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2017 Apr;119:45-52.
- 9. Chakraborty M, Bhattacharjee A, Kamath JV. Cardioprotective effect of curcumin and piperine combination against cyclophosphamide-induced cardiotoxicity. Indian J Pharmacol. 2017 Jan-Feb;49(1):65-70. Kaur G, Invally M, Chintameaneni M. Influence of piperine and quercetin on antidiabetic potential of curcumin. J Complement Integr Med. 2016 Sep 1;13(3):247-255.
- 10. Kaur G, Invally M, Chintameneni M. Influence of piperine and quercetin on antidiabetic potential of curcumin. J Comp. Med 2016 Sep 1;13(3):247-255.
- 11. Wang S, Zhu F, Meckling KA, Marcone MF. Antioxidant capacity of food mixtures is not correlated with their antiproliferative activity against MCF-7 breast cancer cells. J Med Food. 2013 Dec;16(12):1138-45.