Some classic food pairings go well together based on flavor, texture, or even color. Think brie and strawberries, steak and potatoes, or even peanut butter and jelly. But other, equally delicious combos work a biochemical magic together to boost each ingredient’s natural nutrients. Rice and beans, for instance, not only have a rich history in ancient culinary practices, but they are also complementary proteins. When rice and beans eaten together, they provide all nine essential amino acids, making them a perfect fit for those avoiding meat, whether as a lifestyle or simply a #MeatlessMonday. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are five other nutrient marriages made in foodie heaven.
1. Iron and Vitamin C
Iron is found in the hemoglobin of red blood cells and is necessary for oxygen transport, immunity, and converting blood sugar into energy, just to name a few. People with insufficient levels of iron in their system often suffer from fatigue, dizziness, and dry or damaged hair and skin.
There are two types of dietary iron: heme (from meat sources) and nonheme (from plant sources). While heme iron is more efficiently absorbed, there is research indicating that high heme intake may be linked to an increased risk for a variety of chronic diseases.1 Plant-based iron sources include legumes (soybeans, lentils, tofu), grains (quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal), nuts and seeds, and leafy greens. To enhance the absorption of nonheme iron, consume vitamin C-rich foods (red peppers, strawberries, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli) in the same meal.
Side note: the polyphenols in tea, coffee, and cocoa can inhibit the absorption of iron and should be consumed two hours before or one hour after iron-rich meals or supplements.
2. Grilled Meat and Vinegar
When sugars combine with certain amino acids or fats, it can produce a collection of compounds called “advanced glycation end products,” or AGEs. These potentially dangerous AGEs produce harmful free radicals and can lead to inflammation. Additionally, AGEs are more likely to form as a result of high blood sugar (like in poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes), and can clog small blood vessels—especially those in the kidneys, eyes, heart, and brain—leading to heart attack, stroke, or even death.2
AGEs are also found in a variety of foods, especially meats that are high in protein and fat. Cooking these meats via dry heat—whether by grilling, roasting, searing, or frying—promotes the formation of new AGEs up to 100 times.3 However, cooking with acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar can significantly reduce new AGE formation. So don’t swear off skirt steak forever. Just immerse it in a red wine vinegar marinade for a few hours, first.
3. Tea and Lemon
Tea—green, black, oolong, or white—is made from the leaves of the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. Green and black tea contain large amounts of antioxidants, even more than fruits and vegetables. The antioxidant activity in two cups of tea is equal to four apples, or seven glasses of orange juice or twenty glasses of apple juice.4 Catechins, a type of antioxidant, are associated with lowering cholesterol, improved heart health, cancer prevention, and reducing inflammation. A study published by the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that adding a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to a cup of tea can increase the absorption of catechins up to five times. Although the study focused on green tea, researchers suspect the results could apply to black tea as well.5
4. Tumeric and Black Pepper
Tumeric (Curcuma longa) has been used as a spice for centuries, particularly in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking. Tumeric contains a polyphenol known as curcumin that has powerful anti-inflammatory properties as well as offering pain relief for osteoarthritis. Tumeric alone is poorly absorbed: it is metabolized in the liver and intestinal wall too quickly. However, adding black pepper to your turmeric intake can turbocharge its absorption—up to 2,000 percent! 6
5. Tomatoes and Healthy Fat
Lycopene is a potent antioxidant that may prevent heart disease, atherosclerosis, and breast and prostate cancer. Lycopene is a carotenoid, which is responsible for giving tomatoes and other fruits and veggies their red color. Since carotenoids are derived from fats—which makes them fat-soluble—you can bolster lycopene’s effectiveness in your body when you combine it with a healthy fat.7 That makes an olive oil drizzled Caprese salad or an avocado-and-tomato sandwich an antioxidant powerhouse.
So go beyond simple food pairings like bacon-and-eggs, or tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese. Like Kim and Kanye, those couples are entertaining, but substantially bereft. Once you understand the biochemical power behind hummus and whole wheat pita, or oatmeal and strawberries, you will elevate your power couple food game to a whole new Beyoncé and Jay-Z level.