Growing up, my mom always served pork with applesauce. She always told us that the applesauce absorbed fat from the pork to make it healthier. Other people seem to believe that applesauce might kill trichinella worms, which used to be a common parasite in pigs and could lead to a fatal illness. However, it turns out that these are both old wives’ tales, and the real reason why pork and applesauce are served together is that they were traditionally harvested at the same time.
But not all old-fashioned food pairings are as random as this, and some of them really do have genuine health benefits.
Peanut Butter Sandwich
Peanut butter sandwiches are about the cheapest lunch you can imagine, and many of us have chowed down on these while trying to save up and pay off our student loans with the meager salary from our first job. However, it turns out that this meal also has everything you need, protein-wise, at least.
In order to properly utilize protein from food, your body needs to have all nine amino acids at once. Wheat lacks some of the amino acids, as does peanut butter, but together they make a complete protein.
And what about jelly? Well, it doesn’t really add much nutritionally, but if you can afford it, go ahead and add it. Everybody deserves a little sugar now and then.
Salad and Creamy Ranch Dressing
How many times has someone shamed you for taking a healthy salad and drowning it with an unhealthy creamy dressing? Well, next time somebody says that to you, tell them your salad is actually healthier with the dressing.
In order to get the full benefit of antioxidants like carotenoids in salad, your body needs to have have some fat available. Of course, if you don’t like dressing, you can always supply the fat with nuts, avocado, or a milkshake. (Just throwing ideas out there . . . but you’ve gotta admit a milkshake does sound kinda good right now.)
Granola and Yoghurt
So this isn’t a traditional pairing to the extent of other combinations on this list, but it’s become one among the yuppie and hipster sets. And it does have some great benefits when eaten together.
It turns out that the whole grains in granola act as prebiotics for the probiotic cultures in yogurt. This encourages the culture to thrive and increases the digestive benefits.
Sushi and Wasabi
It’s not just western combinations that have benefits when eaten together. It turns out there’s a very good reason for eating wasabi with your sushi. (Other than the fact that it’s super delicious–who would eat sushi without wasabi??!!)
Wasabi is a natural antibacterial agent, so if there does happen to be any kind of bad bugs in your raw fish, wasabi can help keep them from making you ill.
Green Tea and Lemon
Green tea has many health benefits, from reducing your cancer risk to protecting your heart. Most of these benefits come from catechins, antioxidants that are found in high levels in green tea. The problem is that many of these catechins are broken down in your stomach before they can be absorbed.
However, lemon juice can protect the catechins and improve the amount you absorb. Vitamin C from any source can do this, and many green tea blenders add it during blending.
Black Tea and Cake
A traditional English favorite, nothing is a more idyllic accompaniment to a sunny afternoon on the lawn as Bunchie runs to and fro than a hot cup and a sweet cake. But the combination is more than just sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet.
When you eat carbohydrates, enzymes in your saliva and produced by bacteria called amylases break the carbohydrates into sugar, which feed bacteria so they can secrete cavity-causing acids. Black tea contains a high level of tannins that can suppress the amylase activity, reducing the damage.
OJ with a Fatty Breakfast
If you’re having a full, fatty breakfast with eggs, hash browns, and bacon or sausage (heck, why not go for bacon and sausage?), you might want to wash it down with a glass of orange juice.
Orange juice seems to suppress the inflammatory response of our body in response to a high fat high carb meal as well as the release of SOCS3, a protein that contributes to your risk of type 2 diabetes. Does this mean you should have this kind of breakfast every day? No, but it means you might be able to enjoy one every once in a while without feeling too guilty about it.
So not everything your mother told you was folk tale or superstition. Sometimes, there really is a very good reason for eating those traditional combinations of foods.
Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer focusing mostly on medical and health topics such as weight loss, plastic surgery, and dentistry. He loves a big breakfast, and is much hungrier now than when he started writing this article.