I find it fascinating to see the depth of information that researchers can learn about the food we eat. Beyond the nutritional value of meals, scientists are working to uncover how certain foods should be eaten, what they should be combined with and how they are best absorbed. It's a lot of science to take in, but I've waded through the research to uncover these eight amazing tweaks to make "good-for-you" foods even better at your next meal.
• Making curry? Add black pepper. Turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its distinctive yellow color, is being studied for its ability to halt the production of cancer cells. Turmeric contains the potent antioxidant curcumin, which is the active ingredient with anti-cancer potential. Curcumin is not well absorbed by the body, but a sprinkle of black pepper can enhance curcumin absorption by over 2,000 percent. Just a pinch of pepper - literally 1/20th of a teaspoon - is all you need to see this benefit.
• Having fish for dinner? Pair it with wine. It's no coincidence that the much-lauded Mediterranean diet includes both wine and fish for cardiovascular health. It turns out that people who enjoy a glass of red or white wine when they eat fish have higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats in their blood. And that's a good thing - high blood concentration of omega-3 fat is protective against coronary heart disease, stroke and sudden cardiac death. Not a wine drinker? Try using it in a marinade or sauce for your fish instead.
• Enjoying a sandwich? Choose sprouted bread. Grains like wheat and rye can be sprouted before they are milled and baked into bread. That means the grain seed is allowed to germinate or "sprout," and this process has several benefits. It produces grains with more protein, fiber, antioxidants, B-vitamins, vitamin C and iron. It also helps rid grains of certain "anti-nutrients" like phytic acid and tannins, which can hinder mineral absorption. Sprouted-grain breads also have a lower glycemic index than regular breads, making them a better choice than regular bread for balancing blood sugar levels.
• Making a salad? Toss in hard-boiled eggs. Salad vegetables such as carrots, lettuce and sweet peppers boast huge antioxidant potential, but it needs to be unlocked. The key may be eggs. Studies show that adding cooked eggs to salad can help you absorb up to eight times more antioxidants like beta-carotene, which help reduce inflammation that leads to diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Egg whites won't work, since it's the fat in the yolk that matters. Not a fan of eggs? Other fat-containing foods that can boost antioxidants in salads are avocado, almonds, pumpkin seeds or an oil-based salad dressing.
• Eating an apple? Don't peel it. The same goes for cucumbers, potatoes, peaches and kiwi (yes, you can totally eat the kiwi peel). Most of the antioxidants, vitamins and fiber in vegetables and fruit are found in and adjacent to the peel, so tossing it away is a huge waste of nutrients. In the case of apples, a major component of the peel is quercetin, which is an antioxidant associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Toss the peel, and you toss the benefits.
• Cooking with garlic? Chop it and wait. Garlic's cell structure contains a compound called allicin and an enzyme called alliinase. Separately, they have little potential. But once you mince garlic, these two components come into contact and create allicin, a powerful antioxidant that can kill cancer cells and prevent new ones from forming. After you mince or chop garlic, wait 10 minutes to allow allicin to form. The finer you chop your garlic, the more allicin will be produced. Caution: this also enhances the potent flavor, so keep breath mints handy.
• Preparing tomato sauce? Use olive oil. Raw foodists take note - some foods provide more nutritional value when they are cooked. Tomatoes are one example - they contain the antioxidant lycopene, but it's better absorbed by the body when tomatoes are heated and fat is added. Tomato sauce (even when used on pizza!) is a smart combination of cooked tomatoes with olive oil. The lycopene in tomatoes has been associated with lowering cholesterol levels and may have anti-inflammatory effects, meaning it must be absorbed to be functional. Without heat and oil, lycopene is not well absorbed by the body.
• Drinking green tea? Add a splash of citrus. With its mellow taste, green tea is enhanced by a squeeze of fresh orange, lemon or lime juice. But it's about more than flavor! A study out of Purdue University showed that our ability to digest catechins - the antioxidants found in green tea - is enhanced by citrus. By adding citrus juice to green tea, you can increase digestion of catechins from 20 percent up to 98 percent. That's important because catechins have been shown to protect against heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.