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The Almighty GarlicThe Almighty Garlic

March 1, 2003

5 Min Read
The Almighty Garlic

What crop is rumored to repel vampires, protect against the Evil Eye and ward off jealous nymphs? Why, it’s the same crop that may lower cholesterol, lessen pregnancy complications and act as an anticarcinogen. Few foods carry such a large realm of health claims and “special” powers as garlic. Part of the lily family, this root crop (Allium sativum) is closely related to shallots, chives, onions and leeks. The word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, meaning “spear leek.” Dating back more than 6,000 years, it is native to Central Asia.

Varieties and forms
With more than 300 varieties grown worldwide, American garlic, with a white, papery skin and strong flavor, is one of the most common. Most U.S.-grown garlic hails from California, Louisiana and Texas. The slightly less pungent purple-skinned garlic is cultivated in Mexico and Italy.

Garlic has two main varieties: softneck and hardneck. Softneck, or stalkless, garlic produces many smaller cloves per plant, ranges from very mild to very hot and lacks the subtle, but more complex, flavors of the hardneck varieties. Softneck garlic can be stored up to 10 months under optimum conditions. Hardneck garlic produces a “woody” flower stalk with larger cloves than the softneck.

Garlic is available in several forms: fresh; powdered (dried and pulverized); dehydrated flakes (dried minced garlic that can be rehydrated in water before use); powder (when dehydrated flakes are ground); puree; juice/ extract (the liquid from pressed garlic); garlic salt (garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent); and infused garlic oil (vegetable or olive oil with minced garlic added).

Store fresh garlic in an open container in a cool, dark place. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from three to 10 days.

A breath of fresh air
The amount of flavor released from fresh garlic depends on how it is prepared. In short, the smaller the cut, the stronger the flavor, because it releases more essential oils. As a guideline, fresh-garlic preparation methods listed from greatest to least strength are: pressed, crushed, minced, chopped, sliced and browned.

Cutting or pressing ruptures garlic cells. This releases an enzyme called allinaise, which chemically changes the inherent alliin into allicin, a sulfur-containing molecule that results in a pungent garlic smell. Within a short time, the allicin decomposes to methyl allyl and diallyl disulfides, along with other compounds that make up garlic-oil and cooked-garlic flavors. Some of the compounds formed during the breakdown of allicin include dimethyl disulfide (prominent in the flavor of cabbage), propenyl disulfide (contributes to the odor of onions) and propenyl sulphenic acid (the onion compound that makes the eyes water).

To your health
When you consider the wealth of health possibilities associated with regular garlic consumption, it’s no wonder it was worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and chewed by Greek Olympian athletes.

Garlic compounds have antioxidant properties, which may play a role in inhibiting cancer by protecting against cellular damage from free radicals. In the June 1991 issue of Molecular Biotherapy, Benjamin Lau, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, CA, identified three ways garlic protects against cancer: by directly inhibiting tumor-cell metabolism, by preventing the initiation and reproduction of cancer cells, and by boosting a person’s immune system to more efficiently fight cancer cells.

According to the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD, a host of studies provides compelling evidence that garlic and its organic allyl sulfur components are effective inhibitors of the cancer process. These studies reveal that the benefits are not limited to a specific species, to a particular tissue or to a specific carcinogen. Of 37 observational studies in humans using garlic and related allyl sulfur components, 28 studies showed some cancer-preventative effect.

An overview of several studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that, compared with consumption of less than one clove of garlic a week, consuming an average of six or move cloves a week lowers risk of colon cancer more than 30% and reduces risk of stomach cancer almost 50%. Numerous studies conducted in recent years have also shown that substances in garlic can reduce the growth of breast and colon cancer.

Some studies also link garlic to cholesterol reduction, though this is still under debate. Researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park (Journal of Nutrition, 2001, vol. 131), found that aged garlic extract (AGE), an odorless and concentrated form of the bulb, reduced cholesterol levels in the male subjects they tested. Every day for five months, the men took either nine capsules containing 800 mg of AGE or placebo. At the end of the study, the men taking AGE showed a 7% reduction in their total cholesterol, and their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels dropped by 10%. The placebo group showed no change.

While garlic may not significantly reduce cholesterol, it may still have an effect on heart disease. Ajoene, one of the breakdown products of allicin, may reduce the risk of heart attacks by preventing blood-clot formation.

New research shows that taking garlic during pregnancy may reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia (raised blood pressure and protein retained in the urine). Studies reveal that garlic may also help to boost the birth-weight of growth-retarded babies.

Garlic has long been known for its antibiotic properties. The forefather of antibiotic medicine, Louis Pasteur, showed in 1895 that garlic could effectively kill bacteria in laboratory culture dishes. Historically, it has effectively treated tuberculosis, yet its prowess in eliminating bacteria — even the pathogen that produces anthrax — continues to surprise many today.

Additionally, garlic contains many compounds, including vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorus (including 75 different sulfur compounds), selenium, and a number of amino acids. And at just 4.5 calories per raw clove, it’s not a surprising statistic that Americans consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually.

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