Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Conference on ‘Translating nutrition: integrating research, practice and policy’

Plenary Lecture II

Food synergy: the key to a healthy diet  *

The Summer meeting of the Nutrition Society hosted by the Irish Section, Queen's University, Belfast. 16–19 July 2012.

David R. Jacobs Jra1 c1 and Linda C. Tapsella2

a1 Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55454, USA

a2 School of Health Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia


Food synergy is the concept that the non-random mixture of food constituents operates in concert for the life of the organism eaten and presumably for the life of the eater. Isolated nutrients have been extensively studied in well-designed, long-term, large randomised clinical trials, typically with null and sometimes with harmful effects. Therefore, although nutrient deficiency is a known phenomenon, serious for the sufferer, and curable by taking the isolated nutrient, the effect of isolated nutrients or other chemicals derived from food on chronic disease, when that chemical is not deficient, may not have the same beneficial effect. It appears that the focus on nutrients rather than foods is in many ways counterproductive. This observation is the basis for the argument that nutrition research should focus more strongly on foods and on dietary patterns. Unlike many dietary phenomena in nutritional epidemiology, diet pattern appears to be highly correlated over time within person. A consistent and robust conclusion is that certain types of beneficial diet patterns, notably described with words such as ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘prudent’, or adverse patterns, often described by the word ‘Western’, predict chronic disease. Food is much more complex than drugs, but essentially uninvestigated as food or pattern. The concept of food synergy leads to new thinking in nutrition science and can help to forge rational nutrition policy-making and to determine future nutrition research strategies.

(Online publication January 14 2013)

Key Words:

  • Diet pattern;
  • Food;
  • Research design


c1 Corresponding author: Professor David R. Jacobs Jr. fax +1 612 624 0315, email


*  The paper combines aspects of this Plenary Lecture and the Grande Covian Memorial Conference Lecture presented to the Spanish Atherosclerosis Society (Sociedad Española de Arteriosclerosis) in Reus, Spain in June 2012; both lectures were presented by D. R. Jacobs. The views expressed in the manuscript are those of the authors.