The health benefits of garlic, or Allium sativum in botanical and scientific terms, are extensive and it one of nature’s culinary and medicinal wonders. This root vegetable has palate-pleasing qualities similar to herbs that enhance the flavor of any dish. In addition, it has natural ingredients that provide a variety of health-related benefits and treatment applications. Like some root vegetables under the genus Allium, garlic has a bulbous layer of fleshy leaves with roots growing at the underside and a stem flowering at the opposite end. Other vegetables belonging to the same genus, like the onion, chive, and Chinese scallion, share similar characteristics, including a strong odor and flavor that intensifies when the clove is crushed or chopped.
Basic Garlic Facts and History
Garlic is purported to have its origins in the Central Asian Region. The oldest recorded history extolling the benefits of this root vegetable dates back several thousands of years. The ancient Sanskrit texts of India, dating back to 5000 B.C., mentioned the health benefits of garlic. Other similar ancient civilizations in the Asian, European, and African continents are reported to have cultivated the root crop for food, medicinal, and even ritual purposes.
The Mediterranean region, in particular, has continued its age-old gastronomical tradition of utilizing garlic as a vegetable or herb ingredient, in order to acquire its healthful and flavorful benefits. In addition, the ancient Egyptians and other advanced civilizations also used its extractions to treat various wounds and infections, fully aware of the garlic’s antimicrobial and antibiotic properties.
Today, several hundred varieties of garlic are cultivated in different regions around the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the four major garlic-producing countries in 2005 consist of China, India, South Korea, and the United States. In the United States, the majority of domestic garlic farm production and product processing is centered in the state of California.
Garlic thrives in temperate climatic conditions. In tropical regions, garlic is often cultivated in higher locations where cooler temperatures promote production. In terms of soil condition, this root vegetable has a preference for loam or sandy loam, which has enough drainage capacity to hold the ideal amount of moisture required for crop growth.
Culinary Uses of Garlic
Garlic is now a staple vegetable in almost every kitchen. It is widely used in different cuisines as an ingredient and herb flavoring. The cloves are commonly used for cooking but other parts of the vegetable, including the flowers and immature bulb, are also used as a culinary ingredient. As a flavor enhancer, it is prepared and cooked with different types of meat, fish, and vegetables. In its uncooked form, the garlic may be added as a herb to certain sauces and condiments.
Garlic cloves and leaves are sautéed or stir fried with onion, ginger, and other vegetable or meat ingredients in the Southeast and other regions of Asia. In Spanish, Greek and other types of Mediterranean culinary traditions, garlic is often paired with staple ingredients such as onion, tomatoes, and olive oil to enhance the flavor of the dish. Garlic infused olive oil is also a popular addition to bread and pasta dishes. In the Valencia and Catalonia regions of Spain, garlic infused olive oil is mixed with egg yolk and mustard to produce aioli.
Medicinal and Health Benefits of Garlic
Garlic is said to produce a variety of medicinal and health benefits. This root vegetable is reputed to facilitate cardio-vascular health due to its capacity to prevent hypertension, cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and other conditions. The component in the garlic which is responsible for this health benefit is allicin, a remarkable compound derived from alliin and allinase.
Aside from producing cardiovascular benefits, allicin is also said to have antibacterial, antimicrobial, and even anti-fungal properties. Allicin also promotes the development of certain types of antioxidants like glutathione and catalase. These two antioxidant enzymes are said to detoxify the body, boost the immune system, and prevent the risk of cancer and other diseases.
As a soluble compound, its potency is significantly reduced when cooked or exposed to the acids in the gastro-intestinal system reducing the health benefits of garlic. To help maintain the optimum benefits of this compound and improve absorption into the body, it is often extracted from the garlic and processed into food supplements.
Aside from allicin, garlic has diallyl disulfide or DADS, a more stable compound that can survive high cooking temperatures. DADS is said to have anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties. Together with allicin, DADS also improve cardiovascular health by promoting blood circulation and reducing cholesterol. As an anti-cancer compound, DADS is purported to facilitate decrease in growth of certain types of cancer cells.
In terms of antifungal and antimicrobial benefits, garlic is often added as an ingredient in topical lotions, oils, and creams to treat specific skin conditions. These medicated solutions are used as spot treatment for acne, pimples, and recurring fungal conditions like athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm. Garlic is also used as a natural remedy for parasitic infections inside the body. It is said to be the best anti-parasitic treatment option for roundworms and other gastrointestinal dwelling parasites.
Although a standard dosage for garlic has not yet been established, some recommend a daily intake of one or two raw cloves per day to achieve the optimum benefit of this root vegetable. However, the strong compounds in the garlic could have an adverse effect on the gastrointestinal area, especially when eaten raw. Taking garlic supplements is an alternative and safe way to fulfill this requirement. The best supplements usually contain all the essential compounds without the strong garlicky odor.
Risks and Warnings
There are individuals that are garlic-intolerant and experience allergic reactions upon consumption. The allergy symptoms may be moderate to severe, depending on the intake and the tolerance level of the individual. Stomach aches, heartburn, and even flatulence may occur as an allergic or digestive reaction to the garlic. Over-consumption of uncooked garlic also produces similar effects.
As a dietary supplement, less is known about its contraindicative properties if taken with other types of medication. Although, medical advise on appropriate dosage and intake is recommended for individuals planning to take garlic supplements while on anti-coagulation or any cardiovascular treatment medicines.
Exposure to crushed garlic juice may also cause skin irritation characterized by a slight burning sensation and reddening of the area. The level of discomfort and severity of the irritation depends on the individual’s tolerance to the substance. In some moderate to severe cases, burning and blistering of the skin happens as a result of prolonged exposure to the garlic juice.
One of the marvels of the vegetable world, the health benefits of garlic can be enjoyed by including it in your essential store cupboard and goes well with many meats and vegetable dishes or via garlic extract supplements.
Jeff Andrews writes about the many common foods that are beneficial to your health.