Despite the current emphasis on healthy eating and weight, not many of us look at a plate of food and separate the ingredients out according to their nutritional or therapeutic benefits. However, many foods have a long and distinguished history in natural medicine and the inclusion on a regular basis in your diet can bring many benefits.
One of the enormous benefits of living in Spain was the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables available in supermarkets, most of which is sourced from within Spain and the Islands. Despite my concerns about our modern diet, there is a positive, and that is with vastly improved transport links and methods, the same foods can be enjoyed in most countries in Europe.
Although the French may lay claim to being the ‘Onion Kings’, Spanish onions are well known for their pungent and flavourful addition to cooking around the world.
Onions and garlic fit well into the category of ‘Superfood’ as they are both nutritional and can influence health in a very positive way.
Despite any claims to the contrary, onions (Allium cepa) originated from Asia and the Middle East and have been grown for over 5,000 years. They were even used by the Egyptians as a weekly wage for the workers who built the pyramids, not something they would get away with today. They were sent into the afterlife with Pharaohs and used in this life by many different cultures to prevent a premature passage to the other side. The Israelites apparently wandered the wilderness longing for the onions, leeks and garlic that they had left behind in Egypt, something to think about when you next pass them in the grocery section of the supermarket.
The onion is part of the Lily family, which includes garlic, leeks, welsh onions and chives. The word onion comes from the old English word unyun derived from the French word oignon, which in turn came from the Latin unio. There are words for the vegetable in ancient languages but none seems to be related to each other indicating how widespread the use of the vegetable was.
Onions have been used for thousands of years as a seasoning for otherwise bland food and today we can buy them all year round and use them raw or cooked in a wide variety of dishes.
The onion has a powerful sulphur-containing compound, which is responsible for the pungent odour and for the health benefits. Onions contain allyl propyl disulphide, chromium, Vitamin C and flavonoids, the most beneficial being Quercitin.
Allyl propyl disulphide lowers blood sugar levels by competing with insulin, which is also a disulphide for space in the liver where insulin is normally deactivated. This results in an increase in the amount of insulin available to move glucose into cells causing a lowering of blood sugar.
Chromium is a mineral that also helps cells respond efficiently to insulin, which in turn decreases blood sugar levels. These two properties in the onion make it a vegetable worth including in our daily diet as we get older to help prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes. Chromium has also been shown to improve glucose tolerance, lower insulin levels, and decrease total cholesterol levels whilst increasing levels of the healthy cholesterol (HDL).
The reduction in unhealthy cholesterol levels leads to reductions in blood pressure levels, which is of course a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Eating onions with other foods with high levels of Bioflavonoids (tea, apples, broccoli, cranberry juice etc.) has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease
Quercitin combined with Vitamin C work together to kill bacteria, which is why they are so valuable added to soups and stews during the cold and flu season.
There are other areas where eating onions regularly can reduce your risk on developing degenerative and sometimes life threatening diseases. These include Colon cancer, Osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and other inflammatory diseases.
An exciting area of research into bone health has identified that a compound in onions with a mile long name but GPCS for short, may inhibit the activity of osteoclasts, which are the cells that break down bone.
Onions also contain healthy amounts of other nutrients such as manganese, Vitamin B6, tryptophan, Folate, potassium, phosphorus and copper making onions a well-rounded nutrient source.
The garlic is a multi-bulb cousin to the onion. Again originating in Asia it has been used for thousands of years as a pungent additive to food but also as a healing agent. In recent years, its reputation has been validated by hundreds of research studies and like the onion; it is worth including in your diet very regularly.
Garlic contains many helpful compounds including thiosulfinates such as allicin, sulphates including alliin and dithins the most researched being ajoene.
Research has identified that garlic lowers blood pressure, decreases the ability of platelets to clump together forming clots, reduces blood levels of lousy cholesterol (LDL) whilst increasing levels of healthy cholesterol (HDL). It also helps our blood vessels relax which prevents atherosclerosis, heart disease and the risks of heart attacks and strokes.
Garlic, like the onion is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral. With the current concerns that we have about potential ‘Super bugs’ it is interesting that garlic appears to be an effective antibiotic, even against some of these resistant strains.
Cancer protection is essential for all of us. The compound ajoene might be effective in the treatment of skin cancer and eating two or more servings a week of garlic may help prevent colon cancer.
Allicin has also been researched in regard to weight loss, as there is some indications that in the laboratory at least, that this compound may inhibit weight gain.
As in the case of most spicy and pungent foods ‘less is more’ with this particular flavouring especially if you wish to maintain close relationships with family and friends.
Here is a recipe link for a wonderful soup in summer or winter.
If you have a favourite recipe for onion and garlic containing dishes then please share in the comments.. thanks for dropping by.. Sally