"THE WHOLE IS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS."
"The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." This phrase is ripe fodder for standard dorm room, all-nighter, armchair philosopher, I'm-on-glaucoma-meds, chat fiestas. "Like, somehow, we're all like this huge, you know, oneness of nature, man. Righteous, dude, I get it. [much nodding] Totally."
But, in fact, nutrition science, and particularly the science called "complexity," tends to agree (although less colorfully than your average beer-soaked sophomore). The point is that three and three does not always equal six.
More specifically, from a biological standpoint, a given molecule may have one particular function, but if and only if it is in the presence of a second or third molecule, or some combination of those molecules. In other words, nothing "is what it is" outside of its context.
Dude, like, I get it. [much nodding] Totally.
For example, natural olive oil includes a molecule known as Tyrosol, which is only a modest anti-oxidant. When exposed to LDL in a lab, the bad cholesterol, it doesn't really reduce its oxidation that much. But in the presence of the living cells of a living body, Tyrosol has a very strong overall protective anti-oxidative effect. Why? It comes down to this new, one-plus-one-equals three nutritional math.
The research of Roberta Di Benedetto from Italy's National Centre for Food Quality and Risk Assessment, has shown that Tyrosol can interact with our cells' intrinsic natural defenses, and multiply its effect. Thus, the Tyrosol in olive oil turns out to be a monster antioxidant, but only in the context of a normal biological system of cells, which need oxidative protection.
The same principle is true for the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon. A poisonous sea plant known as "Salvation Jane" produces the noxious chemical called Stearidonic Acid. By itself, Stearidonic Acid is awful for humans, but once salmon eat this, as they naturally do, it is converted to the incredibly healthy omega-3 fatty acid.
Are you getting the pattern? It's bad for you on its own - when abstracted and separated out - but good for you when taken in the context of the real world.
FOOD TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT?
Note that fish farms do not offer naturally occurring Salvation Jane for their stock. In stead, they now attempt to extract the plant oil and sell it as a dietary fish supplement for the salmon, to boost their omega-3 levels. In other words, Salvation Jane Supplements to be fed to the fish, rather than the plant itself.
Does this strike anyone as dunderheaded?
If one believes the idea that extracting single elements and serving them outside of their normal context could possibly produce unintended consequences (just as Vitamin C can increase cancer rates, when taken as supplements www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21507551), one might predict that this supplement for the fish can be either irrelevant or even harmful in some way.
The same thing is true of the practice of feeding salmon ground up dead salmon, and then dyeing them pink to make them appear as if you haven't been feeding them ground up dead salmon. By the way, the dye the feed the fish is exactly the same dye that people take as a sunless skin tanner - but which most countries have banned because it can lead to retinal damage. Just sayin'.
Such a pharma-food industry strategy would only makes sense if you made a chemist's assumption about biology: that biology is a simplistic linear system, and biological parts are additive (three and three equals six), and not multiplicative (three and three are actually 9), or even exponential (three and three are actually closer to twenty-seven).
Great dorm room fodder, eh?
SUM OF FOOD ELEMENTS NOT THE SAME AS FOOD
But, unfortunately for us, one doesn't know the nutritional math you're dealing with until after the fact. And we only learn the errors of our nutritional theories after we've tried and failed, more than a few times, to solve the equation. Who is the loser when this happens? Not the scientific source of the theories we test out for them at a population level. Not the food companies that spin low fat, low carb, food combining, cave man diet, glycemic index, blood type, eat-every-three-hours food products for us to purchase like a new fad every other year.
We lose. We do.
Bottom line? We are greater than the sum of the parts, and the biological system is vastly more complex than we yet know (by a long shot). The popular notion that you can abstract a single element from its carrot, its salmon, or its Salvation Jane, and that that element will behave in the same way as it does when eaten in the context of food is as simple as it is simplistic. It's either naïve (ill informed) or just a sales job (ill intentioned).
NEED SOME EXAMPLES?
Beta Carotene in food decreases the risk of cancer (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21901390).
Beta Carotene in a pill increase the risk of lung cancer (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19876916)
.Vitamin E in food decreases your risk of cerebral stroke (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10919944).
Vitamin E in a pill increases your risk of cerebral stroke (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21051774).
Vitamins and minerals in food are obviously good for you (no ref needed).Multi-vitamin horse pills do nothing at all for you (archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/169/3/294).
The best solution for us is to eat food, grown in normal ways. Put things in your mouth that your body has a biological context for: otherwise known as ... food. That is an equation that easy to figure out.
Dr. Will Clower is an award winning author, media personality, and CEO of Mediterranean Wellness.