The Nutrition Diva's Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Well and Feeling Fabulous

Does the food matrix really matter?

Episode Summary

Food is more than just a collection of nutrients.

Episode Notes

Food is more than just a collection of nutrients. In this episode, we explore how the format of the food matrix affects its nutritional value.

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

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Nutrition Diva is a part of Quick and Dirty Tips.


Episode Transcription

Hello, I’m Monica Reinagel and you’re listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast. Welcome!

Long time listener Ramsey writes: 

“Can you discuss the concept of food matrix and how it affects the nutritional attributes of foods we eat? I heard it discussed on a podcast—and it seems to provide a strong rationale for why a whole food diet might be better for us. Is there any validity to this concept?”

Foods are more than just a collection of nutrients. Those nutrients are delivered in what we are now referring to as a food “matrix.” The term is thrown around a lot these days, but it's not always used to mean the same thing. Sometimes, people are just referring to the level of processing involved. But it’s more than that. 

José Miguel Aguilera writing for Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition defines it this way: “The food matrix may be viewed as a physical domain that contains and/or interacts with specific constituents of a food (e.g., a nutrient), providing functionalities and behaviors which are different from those exhibited by the components in isolation or a free state.”

Translation: The whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts.

Geo Thomas, Adarsh Kalla, and Ashok Kumar, writing in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry  (I’m afraid you’re getting a terrifying peek into how I spend my time), have this to say: 

“Food matrix can be described as a complex assembly of various physical and chemical interactions that take place between the compounds present in the food. The physiological response and the health benefits of a particular compound are resultant on these interactions.”

An example of a physical interaction might be the amount of fluid fiber can absorb, which is dependent on the format of the fiber. An example of a chemical interaction might be the chemical links that form between individual starch molecules, resulting in something we refer to as resistant starch—starch that resists digestion. 

The format or matrix of a food can impact everything from the amount of energy that your body will extract from it (which we measure in calories), to how it tastes, to what it does to your blood sugar, to how full you feel after eating it.

For example, the exact same meal, if liquified into a smoothie, may leave you feeling less satisfied than if you had eaten those foods in their solid form.  

But these are factors that our current systems for nutritional analysis can’t always catch. And this is why for decades, whole almonds were believed to contain 160 calories per ounce based on the grams of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates they contain. But researchers have now demonstrated that the body doesn’t actually absorb all of the available calories in almonds—probably due to the fiber they contain. When processed by the human digestive system, an ounce of whole almonds appears to provide only about 130 usable calories.

The food matrix also affects how a given food impacts our blood sugar. Most of us are aware that whole grains, which contain the nutrient-rich germ and the fiber-rich bran along with the starchy endosperm, have a more modulated impact on blood sugar than refined grains, where the germ and bran have been removed. But many people don’t realize that whole grains affect the body differently when they are ground into flour rather than eaten as an intact grain. The whole, intact grain will generally be digested and absorbed more slowly than the whole grain flour.

Now, we don’t want to throw all processing under the bus. Sometimes, it increases a food’s nutritional benefit. For example, while blending or liquifying whole fruits and vegetables can result in a faster increase in your blood sugar, it can also make some of the nutrients more absorbable. And some research suggests that grinding up fiber into smaller pieces makes it more effective in reducing cholesterol. 

But the food matrix does not simply refer to methods of processing and preparation. It also refers to nutrients in whole foods and how our body responds to them. For example, there’s been a ton of debate about saturated fat and whether it does or does not contribute to cardiovascular disease. 

But saturated fats come in a whole lot of different matrixes. For example, there’s research to suggest that fats found in whole dairy foods, like cheese and yogurt, affect the body differently than the same amount of the same fats delivered in other foods. Specifically, the calcium in full-fat dairy foods appears to have a slight inhibitory effect on the amount of fat that gets absorbed from the gut. 

And speaking of the gut, the food matrix also seems to affect how the nutrients in foods affect the microbiome. Adding fiber to a diet is one way to boost the health of the microbiome. However, taking a fiber supplement, or eating bars or cookies that have been formulated with added fiber, may not have the same effect on the microbiome eating as the same amount of fiber from legumes, for example. 


The bottom line here is that the nutrition facts that we’ve all been trained to pay attention to—which detail how many grams of fat or fiber or how many calories a food contains—represent a very incomplete picture of the nutritional value and benefit of a food. Two foods with the exact same nutrition facts—and even the same ingredient list—may not be equivalent at all in terms of their nutrition impact. 

The food matrix clearly matters—as does the way we combine foods and even the conditions and surroundings that we eat them in. And as frustrating as this may be to those of us who like to understand exactly how things work, we don’t yet have a comprehensive way of assessing and communicating the impact of food matrix on our dietary choices.

But you can experiment with this concept yourself. For example, although I love a smoothie, I’ve learned by trial and error that the same ingredients (yogurt, fresh fruit, chia seeds, etc.) get me a lot farther if I put them in a bowl and eat them with a spoon than if I blend them up and drink them through a straw. Similarly, I find whole grains much more satiating than the equivalent amount of whole-grain bread. 

As I mentioned, processing can sometimes increase or enhance the nutritional value or benefit of a food. So we don’t want to be too absolute or dogmatic about our conclusions here. But, as Ramsey suggests, our growing awareness of the importance of the food matrix does support the value of eating more foods in their whole or minimally processed state. Ironically, those are also the foods that are less likely to have a nutrition facts label attached to them. 

If you have a question that you’d like me to investigate, you can email it to me at or call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206

And before we wrap up, I also wanted to invite you to join me for a free live workshop that I’m giving this week on how to create healthy habits that actually stick. If you’ve been struggling with consistency in your eating or exercise habits, I think you’ll find this very helpful. And it would also be fun to interact with you in real-time!  You can register at

The Nutrition Diva show is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. It's audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our Podcast and Advertising Operations Specialist is Morgan Christianson. Our Digital Operations Specialist is Holly Hutchings. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our intern is Brendan Picha 

That's all for this episode. Thanks for listening! I'll see you next week.