Onions and garlic. They aren’t foods that make most people’s mouths water on their own. They aren’t pretty foods that one would likely gaze at longingly like a gooey chocolate chip cookie or a savory bowl of Thai coconut curry soup.
While some people love them, others detest their strong flavor. Here and there a creative garlic or onion rich recipe will show up on a cooking blog, but not often enough. They are definitely not a lauded, fad of the moment health food like kale. I believe I can declare with reasonable certainty that onions and garlic are undervalued both in taste and in health benefits. Onions and garlic are magical foods for our bodies and I’d like to provide you with the 411 on why this is so.
In the name of hoping one blog article can wow with pure science and a dash of culinary daydreaming, I like to argue that onions and garlic are not just magical, but that they are so fantastic that it is worth ordering meals with them on first dates, despite their reputations for causing malodorous breath. That’s why mints and breath fresheners exist!
Perhaps I’ve got you curious about what a simple food such as garlic, a food previously used by ignorant souls to ward off nonexistent vampires, can do for us. Maybe you are wondering why we should consume more of a food that makes us cry when we chop it up, like onions. If so, please do continue reading. Kale, I still love you, but it’s about time you shared your celebrity health food status with onions and garlic.
Here’s the deal. Veggies in the allium family- onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, chives and scallions- contain organosulfur compounds that are activated when we chop, crush or chew these foods. These sulfide compounds are absorbed by our bodies and actually prevent the development of cancers by detoxifying carcinogens and halting the blood supply to pre-cancerous and cancerous cells.[i] Not only do allium veggies contain these healthful organosulfur compounds, but they also contain enzymes known as angiogenesis inhibitors. Angiogenesis inhibitors halt cancer cells in their tracks and let those unwelcome cancerous cells know that they mean war. These beneficial enzymes halt the growth of abnormal cells, tumors and cancers by blocking blood flow and nutrients to these cells. Say hello to a reduced risk of cancer folks and hello to more onions and garlic.
Here are more nerdy nutrition facts on the allium class of veggies:
1) In a large multi-country case-controlled study it was shown that those who consume the most onions (about ½ cup of chopped onion/day) had less than half the rate of cancers than those who rarely consume onions.[ii]
2) Onions are the richest source of quercetin, an antioxidant that combats the growth of tumors and induces cell death in cancerous cells. Take that cancer.[iii]
3) Due to their high flavonoid content, allium veggies have anti-inflammatory effects that further help us ward off cancer.[iv]
Ancient Egyptians considered onions to be an object of worship. According to the National Onion Association, “Onions symbolized eternity to the Egyptians who buried onions along with their Pharaohs.” Wow, this fact is as cool as the existence of an American National Onion Association. While I don’t think I’m going to start worshiping onions like an Ancient Egyptian, you can count on me to include allium veggies in my cooking whenever possible. I will even go as far as to keep those onions on my salad or sandwich on a date.
If you don’t like onions and/or garlic, I must recommend that you try different varieties and cooking methods to discover more pleasurable ways to incorporate them into your diet. Raw onions are more potent than sautéed onions and red onions have much more of a bite than white. You don’t even have to eat white or red onions if you don’t want to. Why not try Vidalia onions, Egyptian onions, pearl onions, or Bermuda onions (random fact: these guys are actually from Italy, not Bermuda!)? You could even throw a few cocktail onions into a soup recipe. Cocktail onions are the smallest onions available and in addition to being cute, they have a sweeter flavor. As far a garlic is concerned, have you ever tried fermented garlic?! Man that stuff is good. We really have no excuse to avoid allium vegetables.
Next time you are at your local grocery store, pick up some onions and garlic and say yes to cancer prevention. Once again, allium veggies provide us with more confirmation that plant foods are often our best weapons against disease. Score.
[i] Powolny A, Singh S. Multitargeted prevention and therapy of cancer by diallyl trisulfide and related Allium vegetable-derived organosulfur compounds. Cancer Lett 2008; 269: 305-314.
[ii] Galeone C, Pelucchi C, Levi F, et al. Onion and garlic use and human cancer. Am J Clin Nutr 2006; 84(5): 1027-32.
[iii] Xavier CP, Lima CF, Preto A, et al. Luteolin, quercetin and ursolic acid are potent inhibitors of proliferation and inducers of apoptosis in both KRAS and BRAF mutated human colorectal cancer cells. Cancer Lett. 2009 Aug 28;281(2):162-70.
[iv] Ravasco P, Aranha MM, Borralho PM, et al. Colorectal cancer: Can nutrients modulate NF-kappaB and apoptosis? Clin Nutr. 2010 Feb;29(1):42-46.