My father used to tell me, “The world would not be able to eat without 4 vegetables; potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic!” Garlic? Really?
There are usually three distinct feelings associated with garlic – complete detest for the vegetable in any form (soups, bread, powdered, fresh – nope!), relentless love for it (seriously, I could chow down raw pieces as a snack) or utter guilt (hmmm, people keep saying such good things about it, maybe I should learn to love!). Infamous for its inimitable smell, but cherished for its ancient role as a medicinal vegetable, garlic can be a total hit or a complete miss!
Garlic is known to have a powerful and pungent flavor that adds zest (like a kick to your taste buds) to almost any recipe (1,2). This explains why it has a long-standing presence as a seasoning, condiment and ingredient in various cuisines, from Asian to Mediterranean. The bulb of the garlic plant is the most commonly used component; its leaves, flowers and head can also be eaten at times (3). Though garlic is a principle ingredient in most dishes of Asian, African and Southern European regions, its flavor and aroma vary depending on the cooking method used to prepare it! Versatile, don’t you think?
From the common cold to the deadliest cancers, garlic has been used medicinally in many cultures for thousands of years. Stories narrating the use of garlic as a medicine in Egypt, Greece, Romania, China and Korea date back to as far as 2000 BC (3)!
Garlic is also referred to as Alium sativum by food scientists. Allicin is a compound produced when garlic is chopped, crushed, or bruised. It is an effective antibiotic and a strong agent that can protect against germ growth and reproduction. Some researchers have even gone as far as suggesting that Allicin has a higher potency than penicillin, a common group of drugs used to combat bacterial infection (4). Still not impressed? Let’s look at some specific associations between garlic consumption and a host of ailments.
Garlic and the Heart
Among the many reported health claims of garlic, the bulk of research has been done in the area of cardiovascular disease. Epidemiological evidence has suggested that garlic’s cardio protective (aspects that protect the heart) properties range from increasing High Density Lipoprotein levels (thus reducing the overall LDL/HDL ratio), to stimulating Nitric oxide (a chemical that helps relax blood vessels), and even reducing free radicals in the blood stream. Through a combination of these three actions, garlic has shown to reduce the occurrence of atherosclerosis and stroke over the long run (4, 5).
Garlic and Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, several population studies have shown an association between increased intake of garlic and reduced risk of some cancers such as stomach, colon, esophagus, pancreas and breast cancers. However most of these investigations that measured potentially protective effects of garlic have used supplements in the form of extracts (or preparations, such as garlic powder, aged garlic extract or garlic oil), rather than raw or cooked garlic (6).
Study limitations, including the low accuracy of self-reported consumption of garlic and inconsistencies caused by the use of different garlic products and preparation methods, make it a challenge to make conclusive decisions regarding garlic’s ability to prevent cancer (7). But the possible associations with cancer prevention could be due to its antibacterial properties that block the growth and reproduction of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances (8).
Moral of the story: garlic is great in ways that science is still trying to understand! So, don't hesitate to chow down on some fresh garlic, and add it to your stir-fries, omelettes and fresh-pressed juices to take advantage of its myriad of benefits!
Red Rabbit Education Intern
NYU MS Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate
- Today’s Dietitian – Garlic – One of Nature’s brightest bulbs
- Food & Nutrition Magazine – Ginger Garlic Gourmet (2006)
- Food &Nutrition Magazine – Garlic the great – three times over (2006)
- Nutrition Reviews – Effect of garlic on serum lipids: an updated meta-analysis (2013)
- American Heart Association – Phytochemicals and Cardiovascular Disease (2014)
- National Cancer Institute – Garlic and cancer prevention (2008)
- Journal of Nutrition – Garlic and Cancer: A critical review (2001)
- Phytotherapy Research - Garlic natural health products exhibit variable constituent levels and antimicrobial activity against Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Staphylococcus aureus and Enterococcus faecalis. (2005)