November 11, 2009
Some use it to repel vampires. Some use it to alleviate everything from heart disease to high blood pressure to cancer. But most just enjoy its pungent flavor. Garlic has been celebrated in folklore, used as a medicine and added to foods for thousands of years. And, while its recent repute has been medicinal, new interest in its culinary propertiesespecially differences in varietalsis awakening.
Garlic is the edible bulb from a plant in the lily family (Allium sativum), and is related botanically to the onion, shallot, leek and chive. Much of its distinctive flavor comes from sulfide compounds, and different varieties have different flavors that can be influenced by the growing environment.
While most of us are familiar with white, softneck garlic, the plant comes in many different varieties, including varieties of hardneck garlic. These can be brightly colored in shades of purple, magenta and pink, as well as white, and are experiencing a renaissance due to the local-foods movement, interest in world cuisines, and widespread reports of its health benefits. A recent study published in HortScience of 10 garlic cultivars (Ajo Rojo, Chesnok, German White, Inchelium, Purple Glazer, Red Janice, Sakura, Siberian, Silverwhite, and Spanish Roja) can help identify niche regional markets and offer new, in-demand garlic varieties to consumers.
The study, conducted by Gayle M. Volk of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins, and David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation, found that bulb wrapper color and bulb size were highly dependent on location and cultivar. It was not surprising to find that bulb size and circumference were highly site-dependent and correlated. Bulb wrapper color is also highly site-specific, supporting evidence reported by marketers that bulb color is more determined by growth environment than cultivar types, Volk says.
Garlic and health
Garlics health benefits have been attributed to its complex makeup of nutrients, including antioxidants. It contains calcium, copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and C, along with dozens of bioflavonoids, and more than 80 sulfur-containing compounds.
According to the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine (NICAM), Bethesda, MD, Garlic's most common use as a dietary supplement for high cholesterol, heart disease and high blood pressure.
The NICAM found that: Garlic can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels, particularly short-term (1 to 3 months), and that it may slow the development of atherosclerosis. However, its effect on lowering blood pressure is equivocal based on current research. Few clinical trials have been conducted regarding garlics ability to lower the risk of certain cancers. A clinical trial looking at garlic supplements as a stomach-cancer preventative found no effect.
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