Understanding the properties of a system as emerging from the interaction of well described parts is the most important goal of Systems Biology. Although in the practice of Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) physiology we most often think of the parts as the proteins and metabolites, a wider interpretation of what a part is can be useful. For example, different strains or species can be the parts of a community, or we could study only the chemical reactions as the parts of metabolism (and forgetting about the enzymes that catalyze them), as is done in flux balance analysis. As long as we have some understanding of the properties of these parts, we can investigate whether their interaction leads to novel or unanticipated behaviour of the system that they constitute.There has been a tendency in the Systems Biology community to think that the collection and integration of data should continue ad infinitum, or that we will otherwise not be able to understand the systems that we study in their details. However, it may sometimes be useful to take a step back and consider whether the knowledge that we already have may not explain the system behaviour that we find so intriguing. Reasoning about systems can be difficult, and may require the application of mathematical techniques. The reward is sometimes the realization of unexpected conclusions, or in the worst case, that we still do not know enough details of the parts, or of the interactions between them.We will discuss a number of cases, with a focus on LAB-related work, where a typical systems approach has brought new knowledge or perspective, often counterintuitive, and clashing with conclusions from simpler approaches. Also novel types of testable hypotheses may be generated by the systems approach, which we will illustrate. Finally we will give an outlook on the fields of research where the systems approach may point the way for the near future. © 2011 Teusink et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.