These Unique Cultural Food Combos Offer Bonus Nutrition Perks
When you think about delicious food pairings, a few might come to mind: nuts and dark chocolate; grilled cheese and tomato soup; avocado and toast; chips and salsa; the list goes on.
But what you may not have realized is many classic food pairings from around the globe actually have a distinct nutritional purpose. This is a concept known as nutrient synergy, or the idea that by combining certain foods, they become healthier as a pair than they would be individually.
"Nutrient synergy describes the interaction between two or more nutrients that results in various biological benefits," says Whitney English Tabaie, M.S., RDN, CPT. "For example, when iron and vitamin C are paired together, it increases non-heme iron absorption by three to six times."
Nature offers great examples of foods that are synergistically powerful, too: Fruits and vegetables have complementary phytochemicals1 that promote high antioxidant activity. Nutrient synergy is also the reason you'll often find calcium-rich cow's milk products fortified with vitamin D: "Calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin D are another group of complementary nutrients that are beneficial to bone health and work synergistically to build strong bones," says English Tabaie. "Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption, while vitamin K is necessary for bone mineralization."
Indeed, examples of potent synergistic nutrient interactions abound in nature and cultures worldwide. The following food pairs offer an exciting glimpse into some eating customs that maximize nutrient synergy, boost flavor, and sustain tradition.
Rice & Beans
Chances are, you've tried some variation of rice and beans in your life—in fact, this combo makes appearances in a number of cuisines across the globe. From Latin America and the Caribbean to Asia and Africa, this historic combo has been an economical source of nutrition and sustenance for millenniums. Here's what rice-and-beans combos look like around the world:
- Costa Rica (gallo pinto)
- Cuba (moros & cristianos)
- Puerto Rico (arroz con gandules)
- Brazil (feijoada)
- Jamaica (rice and peas)
- Bolivia (guiso de frejol)
- India (rajma)
- Peru (tacu-tacu)
- Ghana (waakye)
- Italy (paniscia di novara)
- Colombia (calentao de frijoles)
- Venezuela (pabellón criollo)
What you may not have realized, however, is this seemingly simple combination actually creates a complete, plant-based protein source—meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids the body can't produce on its own. Rice and beans also provide a healthy amount of folate, iron, magnesium, fiber, and slow carbohydrates per serving.
Guava & Cheese
Guava and cheese is a tasty, popular food combo you'll find across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The guava2 fruit contains fiber, antioxidants, magnesium, and vitamin C. In fact, just 1 cup of guava contains about 375 mg of vitamin C, whereas the soft cheeses you'll find paired with guava provide healthy amounts of vitamin D and calcium.
Beyond its fun, unique taste, this sweet-and-savory duo features a synergistic combo: When paired with fat (as in guava and cheese pasteles), the body can better absorb guava's antioxidant lycopene3, which, "becomes more bioavailable when you add fat," registered dietitian Jess Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, previously told mbg.
Some of the countries with guava-and-cheese combos are:
- Costa Rica (guayaba con queso blanco)
- Puerto Rico (pasta de guava con queso crema)
- Cuba (pasetelitos de guayaba and queso)
While it's not the same food combo, it's worth noting that in some countries they even make bricks of guava paste that resemble blocks of cheese, such as perad in India, and goiabada in Portugal.
Tomato & Healthy Fats
- Mexico (salsa, tacos, sopas y caldos, guacamole, etc.)
- Portugal (arroz de tomate)
- Italy (roasted, dried, preserved, simmered, or marinated tomatoes; focaccia; pasta; antipasto; pappa al pomodoro; bruschetta; etc.)
- Kenya (kachumbari)
- Spain (pan con tomate, gazpacho, salmorejo, etc.)
- North Africa (shakshuka)
- France (ratatouille)
- Greece (fasolada, marinated tomatoes, horiatiki or Greek salad, etc.)
The bottom line.
Eating nutritious whole foods is fantastic for your overall health—particularly when they're strategically combined to heighten inherent health properties. Rice, beans, tomatoes, olive oil, guava, and cheese are just a tiny sample of the food combos used worldwide. Pairing foods for optimal wellness has been a part of human gastronomy for centuries—and an inspiring source of delicious culinary creations, too!
Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A, is a journalist, IIN graduate integrative health coach, E-RYT 500 lead yoga teacher, and 500-Hour certified Pilates instructor from San José, Costa Rica. She received her master's degree in communication and journalism from The University of New Mexico, emphasizing well-being, sustainable fashion, health communication research, and graduating Summa Cum Laude. A former professional dancer, she's earned multiple academic and accredited certifications in performance design, positive psychology, doula training, entrepreneurship, digital marketing, mindfulness, innovation leadership, and integrative health. Her work has appeared at top consulting brands and organizations across Latin American and the US, including Byrdie and Albuquerque The Magazine. She currently lives between Costa Rica and New Mexico.