10 Food Pairings That Make Surprising Nutritional Sense

Some foods and flavors are just made for one another. Bacon and eggs. Strawberries and cream. Basil and tomato. Oil and vinegar. Sweet and sour. The list goes on and on. But what’s behind these classic and nearly universal combinations? Does taste alone drive the decision to, say, add fresh herbs to a charred piece of meat? And if pairings are driven by taste, which sounds reasonably, could it be possible that healthy pairings naturally taste better because we’ve evolved an innate draw towards these powerful combinations? The jury may still be out on that one. Nevertheless, some foods, when taken together, make surprising nutrition sense.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. Meat and dairy.

Some cultures, like Jews, severely restrict their pairing, going so far as to bake it into their scriptural doctrine. Others, like the Masai and the Mongolian nomads, base their diets on meat and milk and actively eat the two together. Are these just arbitrary religious or dietary prescriptions, or is there something more going on?

Let’s speculate. Ancient Israelites, the ones who actually wrote the scriptures, were settled agrarians. They ate lots of grains and while they kept animals, they were more useful as sources of renewable calories — milk — than meat. But the thing about dairy is that it contains calcium, which is a potent inhibitor of iron absorption. What little meat they did eat had to be consumed without iron chelators to maximize iron absorption and utilization.

But iron can be dangerous in excess. People with hereditary hemochromatosis, or iron overload, are at an elevated risk for heart disease, cancer, and early death. In societies like the Masai or the Mongols for whom meat was a staple, regularly eating it with dairy likely modulated the amount of iron they absorbed from their otherwise iron-rich meals.

I’m not suggesting this explains the dairy-meat restrictions in the Torah or the dietary habits of pastoral nomads. It’s just speculation. But the fact remains: dairy chelates the iron in meat when the two are eaten together, and this can be a positive or negative health effect depending on your iron status.

2. Red meat and red wine.

Although I only occasionally drink anymore, and I don’t really go for pounds of steak in a sitting, whenever I do sit down for a juicy grass-fed rare ribeye or NY strip, I make it a point to pour a glass of some big spicy red. A cab, maybe a zin or a syrah. I can’t not have wine with good steak. The two are just made for each other, right? Almost as if there’s something more to it than mere taste.

As you probably know, cooking meat can form carcinogens. These carcinogens become more prominent and numerous when meat is cooked too long, at too high a temperature, or without adequate preparation using antioxidant-rich marinades. What if the cooking’s out of your hands and you’re forced to eat what others have prepared? What if you’re faced with a charred steak?

Drinking red wine with your meat can inhibit the activity of cooking carcinogens in your stomach. It’s probably far better to avoid forming carcinogens at all, but red wine is a nice insurance plan if you can’t avoid them. Plus, it’s delicious.

3. Steak and green vegetables.

Another must-have addition to a steak dinner is something green. Spinach, broccoli, kale, asparagus — if it’s green and comes from the ground, I’m all over it. Turns out that another way to inhibit the activity of charred meat-borne carcinogens in the stomach is with green vegetable consumption. Namely, the greens and the crucifers. Both cruciferous vegetables and salad greens reduce the damage wrought by heterocyclic amines formed during cooking meat.

4. Salad and salad dressing.

That spartan office mate who thinks he’s winning the health battle by somehow managing to eat a plain salad sans dressing isn’t just flagellating himself, he’s flagellating himself for no good reason. Fat improves nutrient absorption from raw vegetables.

It could be avocado. It could be a piece of fatty meat. It could be a handful of nuts scattered amidst the leaves. It could be your basic olive oil and vinegar dressing. Whatever you do, eat your raw vegetables with a significant chunk of healthy fat to maximize nutrient absorption and assimilation. Salads are healthy so long as you eat them the right way.

5. Acid and starch.

Sushi rice spiked with rice wine vinegar (or allowed to slightly ferment). Sauerkraut and bunned brats. Pickled vegetables before Korean bbq. In many, perhaps most cuisines, acids (vinegars, citrus juices, fermented foods) are traditionally served either before or with a starch. Part of it is because doing so is delicious. Kimchi goes great with grilled short ribs and a little white rice. But these traditions may also have health benefits.

As it turns out, consuming acidic foods alongside or before starches reduces postprandial blood sugar. Pickled vegetables consumed before or during white rice consumption lowers the blood sugar response by 27% and 25%, respectively. Vinegar itself, regardless of the origin, lowers the blood sugar response to a carb-rich meal, improves the glucose tolerance, and even increases the satiety of a meal when taken before or during the meal. And according to a recent study of type 2 diabetics, simply consuming vinegar can reduce the postprandial glucose response and increase glucose uptake of skeletal muscle in type 2 diabetics.

6. Turmeric and black pepper.

Anytime turmeric appears in a national cuisine’s dish, black pepper’s not far behind. Curry employs liberal amounts of each, enough that it’s not really curry without both. So next time you add turmeric to something — soft boiled eggs, perhaps — add a nice big pinch of finely ground black pepper. I guarantee it will taste better and be better for you than either spice alone.

Turmeric gets a huge amount of press for its health benefits. The most famous turmeric component is curcumin, which forms the basis of most turmeric health supplements. But here’s the thing about curcumin: we can barely absorb it without exogenous agents. And the most popular bioavailability-increasing agent is piperine, a component of regular old black peppercorns.

7. Coriander and cumin.

From Indian curries to Mexican carne asada, Moroccan tagines to American chili to Northern Chinese lamb, coriander and cumin are popular spice pairings across a wide range of world cuisines. Might special synergistic properties arise when one combines the two spices?

Yes. Alone, cumin is a powerful spice with many health effects, mostly owing to its polyphenol content. I’ve already written about cumin and its anti-diabetic, hepatoprotective, and hypocholesterolemic effects. And coriander has been shown to improve blood lipids, lower postprandial blood sugar, and display powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic effects.

When you combine cumin and coriander, interesting things happen. Antioxidant activity is magnified. The combo is also a potent antimicrobial agent, more effective than simply adding the individual effects of each spice together. Importantly, cell line and animal studies showed that this combination, while being more “powerful,” displayed no toxicity. A variety of essential oils, herbs, and spices were studied, but the cumin/coriander combo was the most synergistic.

8. Cinnamon and sugar.

Primal? Not exactly, unless you’re using flint tools to shave wild cinnamon bark into a bowl of evaporated sugar cane condensation. But the combo does taste really, really good together, and there may be a nutritional justification for that fact.

Cinnamon lowers blood sugar by a couple different mechanisms. First and probably most importantly of all, it improves insulin sensitivity and reduces insulin resistance. But cinnamon also reduces absorption of consumed carbohydrates by inhibiting some of the digestive enzymes that break down incoming carbohydrates. It even contains an insulin mimetic, a compound that acts just like insulin in the body. In short, cinnamon improves a person’s ability to tolerate, metabolize, and handle sugar — the very substance it goes really well with.

9. Fat and spices.

Although some cuisines leave this step out, a primary step of any good Indian or Thai cook is to toast the spices in cooking fat before anything else. In Indian cooking, they’ll often start with whole mustard seeds toasted in ghee or coconut oil. For the first step of making good Thai curry, they’ll cook the curry powder in oil to create a paste. The reason cooks do this is to release oleoresins, full-flavored fat-soluble spice extractions. After the oleoresins have been extracted and the rest of the ingredients are added to the mix, any water-soluble spice compounds are also released upon further cooking.

Oleoresins don’t just taste and smell great; they also exhibit unique antioxidant activity. Oleoresins from black cumin seeds, for example, are potent scavengers of free radicals. Cinnamon oleoresins possess at least 17 bioactive components, ginger oleoresins have antimicrobial, anti fungal, and antioxidant properties, and turmeric oleoresin appears to be more anti-diabetic than the essential oil or curcumin alone.

10. Meat and broth-based sauces.

Anytime I cook meat, I’m making a sauce to go along with it. Maybe it’s a reduction, where I reduce bone broth to a syrup before adding fat to thicken and enrich. Maybe it’s a gravy, where I scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, add broth, reduce, and sometimes finish with a safe starch (potato starch mixed in water to form a slurry works really well here) to really thicken it. Also, simply braising a gelatinous cut of meat produces a thick sauce by the end, no extra work required. I’ll often add an acid (citrus juice, wine, vinegar), too. These sauces really enhance the meal.

Turns out they don’t just taste good. They actually make meat healthier to eat.

See, muscle meat (steaks, roasts, ground beef, etc) is high in an amino acid called methionine. Methionine is essential, meaning we can’t synthesize it in our bodies and must consume it in the foods we eat. We need it to build muscle and maintain health. But our methionine intake must be balanced with enough glycine, another amino acid. Methionine toxicity is countered with glycine consumption and the simple addition of adequate glycine to a mouse’s diet mimics the life extension mice enjoy from methionine restriction. Overall, methionine in the absence of glycine can be described as “inflammatory.” Glycine is most abundant in connective tissue, bones, and gelatin. Bone broth-based sauces are probably the easiest and most delicious avenues for glycine consumption.

I just love stuff like this. The world can be confusing and contradictory and chaotic, but sometimes it’s nice when things just sort of fall into place and make sense.

Okay, now I’m hungry. Take care and be sure to leave your favorite food pairings down below (plus, any health benefits you think they might confer)! Maybe there’s even another post on the topic, if we get enough potential pairings to investigate.

Thanks for reading, folks.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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48 thoughts on “10 Food Pairings That Make Surprising Nutritional Sense”

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  1. Thank you for justifying my nightly habit of slicing up a juicy red apple and sprinkling some cinnamon and sugar on it!

    1. yoghurt and fruits? ???? Or yoghurt and eggs?
      I love to read your post everytime Mark! So much to learn from you! I am wandering where do you learn and get these knowledge from… and they all actually make sense to me!

  2. Beans and rice are a classic pairing, but we tend to eschew both grains and legumes. Could there be any advantage to pairing them? That was the hardest thing for me to give up when switching to a paleo diet.

    Fish and lemon is another excellent pairing. Both are good on their own. I have know idea if there is additional synergy combining them.

    1. Beans and rice together make up a complete protein. It’s often the only regular source of protein for poor people and vegans.

      I miss my beans, too. Every now and again, I’ll sneak a few bites. Especially before a bike ride.

  3. What a fun post! Lemon and fish/seafood was the first food combo that came to mind. Particularly if the fish/seafood is raw or rare, this can counter pathogens.

    In Chinese herbal medicine, we have a quite a few herb pairs, or “couples.” They don’t have to be used in combination but often are, and as a couple create different and/or enhanced effects.

    This is how our medicinal formulas work as well–artfully combining various herbs, put together in ways that create synergistic effects, counteract unwanted effects or have other paired actions (channeling effects to the head and upper body, for example).

    Because of this, an herbal formula may have completely different indications and actions than one of its single ingredients used alone. (Western use of herbs often misses this essential piece of Chinese herbal therapy.)

    These days, many people take Chinese herbs as powders, granules, capsules and such (rather than as a decoction from raw herbs). But some common herbs are also foods and work well together–cooked into a bone broth, for instance.

    Da Zao (jujube, or Chinese date) and Sheng Jiang (raw ginger), for instance, facilitate digestion and “harmonize” disparate ingredients.

  4. Vinegar on chips, not that I eat chips very often these days. But a classic pairing here in the UK.

  5. Thai cooking is all about herb and flavor pairings. Lemongrass has a long list of health benefits almost enough for a daily post. I often crave anything in Thai green curry which includes lemongrass, galangal(Thai ginger), kafir lime, coriander seed and/or root, shrimp paste and Thai green chilies and more. Green curry paste goes with any protein stir fried in coconut oil. Off to thaw the frozen shrimp I got at TJs. Today’s lunch will be green curry shrimp with shallots, bamboo shoots topped with fresh bean sprouts and toasted cashews.

  6. Apple and almond butter. Cheese and olives. Cream with dark chocolate. Braunchweiger or liverwurst with mustard and jalapenos. Fresh mozzarella with sliced heirloom tomatoes. French brie with a glass of dessert wine. Salmon/bacon avocado wrap. Poaching eggs in bone broth. Coconut butter melted with lime juice.

    1. Forgot to mention the health benefits…not sure of any, except it sure makes my mental health happy.

  7. Salty and sweet. Salted dark chocolate comes to mind, as does bacon. Just a hint of sweetness with a hit of salt to go with it. Not sure if there’s anything to it beyond the flavor, but the combo is fantastic.

  8. I like to pair ribs with even more ribs.. lol.

    In all seriousness though, one of my favorite pairings is full fat yogurt and blueberries.

    Then a completely non-primal pairing I adore is peanut butter and jam (just spoonfulls of it together.

  9. Wow! These pairings are really, really helpful! I will be making bone broth gravy! Thank you, Mark!!

  10. Protein and greens are my go to dinner:
    1. Ribeye steak and broccolini
    2. Pork chop and brazed cabbage
    3. Chicken thighs and brussel sprouts
    4. Swordfish steak and bok choy

    I like to add chopped onion and garlic to the greens and flash them quickly with olive oil. Not sure what it is about the protein/greens combo but I never get bored of it – perhaps because there is a lot of variety and you can mix and match. Also prep and cooking time are minimal, definite plus.

  11. Can’t believe they forgot:

    Red meat + dark chocolate (for people with hemochromatosis or other ethnic celtic/ redheads on grain free diets)

    Predator fish + brazil nuts

    Bonus points if you can tell me why.

  12. It should be clarified that the prohibition against combining meat and dairy is not actually scriptural. The Mosaic law specifically prohibited “boiling a kid [young goat] in its mother’s milk” (most likely on fairly obvious moral grounds). The prohibition against combining ANY meat and dairy was concocted more than 1000 years later by the fanatical rabbinic teachers.

    1. Hmm… I’d rather have a good steak with sauteed mushrooms and a salad.

  13. Hhmm, I enjoy my whiskey paired with a nice piece of dark chocolate.

  14. What a cool post, Mark! I love food synergy, especially food synergy that has its roots in traditional cuisines around the world. I’m a big fan of fermented dairy-based dressings with salad (homemade “ranch” dressing using yogurt or kefir, for example). As someone with finicky digestion, I find the extra probiotics make the salad way easier to digest, and it’s delicious!

  15. Dates and nuts, cheese and apple, beef and tomato, cheese and chutney. Does anybody remember the food combining diet? It seemed like the premise was you are always better off eating every type of food by itself because they all have different digestion requirements. It was a very unrewarding way to eat as I recall. And perhaps Mark’s article goes someway to explaining why!

    1. A lot of those diets are complete Pseudo science, not unlike the calorie counting diets. Take a simple apple – if you break it down to its molecular compounds it is vast and impossible to analyse, let alone trying to guess how they will react in your digestive process. The big classic is Turmeric – by mixing it with some black pepper, bio-availability goes up 200 times !

  16. Pastured poultry with the skin intact! A great way to combine the methionine with glycine. And who doesn’t love crispy duck skin??

  17. Interesting article, Mark. You’ve put me on the notion of rethinking how I tend to prepare my regular Argentine Beef here in Patagonia, as I tend to cook it like an Argentine, well done. Where can I learn more about the cooking carcinogens? I stopped eating heavy starches with meat a couple of years ago, as the starch tends to inhibit the production of hydrochloric acid production for digestion, and I would invariably end up with acid reflux several hours later. Stopped immediately when I quite combining them, so I think your food combo recommendations have significant value!
    Thanks – Memo Stephens

    1. Enjoy your steaks with chimichurri. The sauce is naive to Argentina and consists of herbs, olive oil and vinegar. I make a version with flat leaf parsley, lemon thyme, evoo, garlic and lemon juice instead of vinegar.

    1. chocolate and meat in general! Or coffee and meat.

      Thanks, now I need to make chocolate chili. 🙂

  18. Liver ‘n onions. Pork chops and apple sauce. Peas and carrots. Surf ‘n turf. Fruit and cheese. Onions and garlic. Salt and pepper. Milk and honey. Coffee and cream. Lemon and lime. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

  19. Interesting! I love this kind of stuff.
    I’ve heard coconut milk or oil can have an affect with carb tolerance (in starchy vegetables or fruits), but I don’t know why or what exactly happens. I wonder if it is true, but I also vaguely remember something about coconut and starches in the Jaminets book a few years back.

  20. i’m not sure if this is true (its what i’ve been told by my mom and grandmother…both jewish) but the reason/root of why kosher jews don’t eat milk w meat has to do with food spoilage and lack of refrigeration/modern food preservation techniques way, way, back when.

  21. A local shop which makes a lot of its own food does a basil mayonnaise (made with olive oil). When ever I cook steak, I get some of that for it. The basil goes so well with it. Also with beef burgers!

    How about coriander (cilantro for you US peeps?)? I eat that on almost anything!

  22. Traditionally the Irish staple was the potato but one of the most popular Irish pairings is Bacon (boiled in salted water) and Cabbage! What about pork with apple and Duck à l’orange!

  23. Indeed Very well posts.. found quite interesting your views about 10 Food Pairings That Make Surprising Nutritional Sense…. As a Dietitian i really appreciate your Nutritional Sense.. Good Job..!!

  24. Customarily the Irish staple was the potato however a standout amongst the most well known Irish pairings is Bacon (bubbled in salted water) and Cabbage! Shouldn’t something be said about pork with apple and Duck à l’orange!

  25. As we are in strawberry season, a naughty but not too unhealthy if you use 70% plus cocoa solids, one of my fave pairings is fresh strawberries dipped in melted chocolate and left to set/chill. Absolutely delicious and one of your five a day…..

  26. I learned recently that my father was diagnosed with hemachromatosis before he died. Just as an aside.