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The Food Matrix and the Future of  Nutritional Research

By Ritamarie Loscalzo


As science has become increasingly interested in how functional food gets its function, the idea of the food matrix and the food matrix effect is garnering more and more attention. 

Functional healthcare providers will need a solid understanding of this evolving area of science, especially given the detective work necessary to get to the root cause of a client’s health challenges.

I predict future discoveries regarding the food matrix will play a major role in how we view the food we eat. But will these discoveries have a positive or negative influence on overall health?

I will address that question shortly.  For now, let’s take a look at the food matrix.


The terms food matrix and food matrix effect (FM-effect) began to appear in studies during the early 80s.  It coincided with nutrition science beginning to focus not only on the kinds and amounts of nutrients needed for good health, but also what fraction of those nutrients were actually made available for the body to use.

Researchers were looking for a way to identify the emerging concept that micronutrient compounds behaved differently when isolated than they did when part of their whole food structure. In addition, compounds were found to deliver benefits beyond their nutritional value. Science wanted to understand why.

What is a food matrix?

The food matrix is described as a complex assembly of nutrients and non-nutrients that interact physically and chemically to impact the release of nutrients, how nutrients transform during digestion, and how and where they are absorbed.  It also interacts with the gut microbiome and the process of microbial fermentation.

In an excellent science review on the food matrix, Jose Miguel Aguilera narrows the definition of a matrix to “something where other things are embedded”.  Simply put, all of the essential and non-essential micronutrients we need for optimal health are embedded in a food matrix.

A food matrix can be classified as a liquid, gel or emulsion. It can be cellular tissue or exopolysaccharides secreted by microorganisms in the gut. It can be a fibrous, extracellular matrix composed of collagen and elastin as found in meat, or a viscoelastic matrix like gluten.

A food matrix can be dense, porous, elastic, or a combination of all three.

A matrix can occur naturally or be artificially produced, specifically made to contain, protect, and control the delivery of compounds or microorganisms. For example, the nutrient compounds in supplements are often suspended within an artificial matrix in the form of a dense pill or liquid solution.

What is the food matrix effect (FM-effect)?

Researchers observed that nutrients with similar chemical properties had varying degrees of nutritional performance and health potential. This seemed to be dependent on the food matrix in which they were embedded, thus, the FM-effect.

The amount of a nutrient released during digestion and how much is actually absorbed is now thought to be directly related to the food matrix.

What amount of the nutrient is converted to an active form, its specific effect in the body, and its resulting bioefficacy are considered to take place after the compounds are released from the matrix.

But what happens when the nutrients are removed from their matrix? I think of it as the “post” FM-effect (PFM-effect). When nutritive plant compounds are removed from their food matrix, they are changed. They behave differently in the human body and don’t demonstrate the same beneficial properties. 

What are the implications of the PFM-effect?

The problem with supplements.

In a previous blog I asked the question, “Why should supplementation be approached with caution?” The story of Vitamin A gives you the answer.

Carotenoids are one of those non-essential micronutrients that get people excited. They are a polyphenol with antioxidant properties that the body converts into retinol (a form of Vitamin A) which supports eye and heart health and provides protection from chronic disease.

When polyphenols were initially extracted from the plant matrix, they showed very high antioxidant activity, but when consumed from fruits and vegetables, this activity was greatly diminished. The bioavailability of carotenoids in blood plasma was five times higher if consumed in a supplement dissolved in oil than when eaten from raw carrots. It was believed this was due to how they were “entrapped” in the cell structure of a plant which made them unavailable after digestion. 

Thinking it would be a good thing, carotenoids were chemically extracted, isolated, and repackaged in a supplement, often in preformed Vitamin A. Over time it was discovered it did not have the hoped-for health benefits. In fact, the preformed Vitamin A became so concentrated in the liver and vascular system it had the potential to create oxidative damage, illness, and even birth defects.

As amazing as plant nutrients are, the almost haphazard way in which the compounds are extracted, concentrated (or worse, synthetically produced) and then reintroduced through supplementation is not taken seriously enough. Little thought seems to be given to the PFM-effect.

When new clients come to me, the first thing I do is find out if they take supplements “just because” or if they have a diagnosed reason to do so. When I suggest supplements, it’s always with a plan to retest at a later time to see where levels are at.

Supplementation should not be taken lightly.

Will we ever learn?

Essential and nonessential micronutrients have developed side by side in a food matrix of specific design. It’s not an accident these compounds somehow support and augment one another.

Proof is in the unique and exclusive health benefits derived from eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet. These benefits can’t be artificially reproduced and shouldn’t be dismissed just because science can’t yet explain it.

This prevailing philosophy of isolate and conquer will never be successful when trying to fully understand a synergistic system. It’s in looking at the relationship between the micronutrient compounds and the matrix in which they’re embedded, combined with the genetic uniqueness of each human body, that the answers to optimal health and diet will surely be found.  

Much of science continues to ignore these complex, cooperative relationships, instead fruitlessly searching for that “magic pill”.  It’s the relationships themselves that are key to supporting the body’s own ability to maximize the extraordinary health and healing properties found in plant nutrition.

I believe in science. I believe in research and its incredible discoveries, but despite all the advances, where has it gotten us? According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), Americans are sicker than ever with a decreasing life expectancy.

How nutritional research is approached and the way it influences the healthcare system has got to change!

Hope for the future.

One of the many reasons I’m so proud of my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training (NEPT) graduates is because every day I see them building on what they’ve learned in the program, making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Steph Jackson, NEPT graduate and gut microbiome extraordinaire, was a recent guest on my podcast, ReInvent Healthcare.  She taught me there are ways to remove problematic histamines from ferments and how to incorporate spinach into yogurt so oxalate sensitive clients have a way to reintroduce spinach into their diet. All achieved without a test tube in sight. 

Earthshaking discoveries? Maybe not. But tell that to the person who’s exhausted, discouraged, and depressed because they haven’t been able to eat a meal for months, maybe even years, without experiencing extreme pain and discomfort.

Functional healthcare practitioners do important work. We change lives and provide hope for people who no longer have options within the current, broken healthcare system.  

We are the path to change. Don’t ever forget that. 

Listen to my podcast, ReInvent Healthcare, where I deepen the conversation about how practitioners who want to make a real difference can empower clients to achieve their best health.  We’ve recorded a series of shows called Functional Food Facts to explore the relationship between food and body function.

The food matrix: implications in processing, nutrition and health – PubMedQuality-1.pdf
Designing Functional Foods with Bioactive Polyphenols: Highlighting Lessons Learned from Original Plant Matrices
Nutritional Renaissance and Public Health Policy – PMC
The Microbiome | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Exopolysaccharides from probiotic bacteria and their health potential – PMC

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