When looking at healthy habits of longest-lived people, you’re most likely to find that they eat a lot of garlic. Garlic contains some organic compounds thought to help fight infection, increase circulation, and boost immunity. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed it to treat a variety of medical conditions, and modern science has confirmed some of those health effects.
Some of the benefits currently in research include:
- Heart health support
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Antibacterial and antiviral benefits
- Anti-cancer support
- Supports iron metabolism
Garlic is a plant in the allium or onion family, and is closely related to onions, shallots, and leeks. Garlic contains a combination of flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients that have been shown to function as antioxidants. The use of garlic to prevent and treat upper respiratory infections and the common cold is age-old. Some current studies suggest that the combined effects on reducing cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as the antioxidant properties, may help to lower the risk for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
However, although there are a plethora of websites that lay claim to the power of garlic to “cure” or “prevent” diseases, according to the University of California’s Berkeley Wellness newsletter, nearly all human studies have been small, short and/or poorly designed.
They note that human studies have used different garlic preparations and doses, making comparisons inconclusive.
There’s little evidence that taking a garlic supplement will prevent or treat any disease, but there is plenty of evidence that a lifestyle that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, small amounts of animal protein, more fish than meat, and not smoking and getting plenty of activity does lower risk significantly for many diseases.
As food journalist Mark Bittman says. “It’s not the beta-carotene, it’s the carrot. The evidence is very clear that plants promote health.”
What he means is, we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food.
Raw or Cooked? Minced or Crushed?
Garlic may be more nutritionally potent when eaten uncooked. But that might not be the whole story.
The Berkeley Newsletter reports that allicin is only one of the chemical constituents components that may be beneficial — garlic contains other compounds that could prove as much or more healthful. Some, like allicin may be better absorbed when raw, but others, like tomato’s lycopene, may be more bio-available when cooked.
It may be that the power of garlic lies chiefly in the culture and lifestyle of the people that eat a lot of garlic. Cuisines of the Mediterranean Coast center around fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, yogurt, and olive oil. Animal protein is an occasional ingredient, not the main focus of a meal, and is eaten just moderately if at all. Fish and shellfish are eaten regularly, along with lots of garlic and onions. The Mediterranean-type diet is the recipe for a long and healthy life.
Raw garlic may be best, and heating may reduce garlic’s health benefits, but not entirely. Regardless if you’re eating raw or cooked, chopping or slicing garlic cloves releases stored enzymes that react with oxygen, and healthy sulfide compounds including allicin forms. Let the crushed, chopped or sliced garlic stand 10-15 minutes before cooking or eating raw to allow the enzymes to fully develop the allicin.
Grated or minced, mix with some olive oil and sea salt and eat on some crusty whole grain bread or on pasta. I like to roast whole bulbs of garlic, and add it to roasted vegetables, soups, and stews. Add your minced fresh garlic toward the end of cooking, to preserve the nutrients as much as possible. Make a fresh homemade salsa with tomatoes, cilantro, minced garlic, and olive oil. A salad dressing with Dijon mustard, olive oil, garlic and lemon/lime juice is flavorful and fresh.
If you have a sore throat, try garlic, honey, and lemon tea: just simmer 8-10 cloves of crushed garlic in two cups of hot water; strain and add in the juice of one fresh lemon and honey to taste.
We don’t generally eat enough garlic in one day to call it a “good” or “excellent” source of any one nutrient, however, but every bit counts. A teaspoon of chopped garlic has about 4 calories, just a modicum of fat and less than a gram of carbohydrate, and small amounts of manganese and vitamin B6, vitamin C, selenium and even smaller amounts of calcium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin B1 (thiamin). Eat more, get more.
As reported in Independent.co.uk, there are at least 600 known varieties of garlic. I asked Rob Gray, owner and founder of the Gran Roca Project, (a sustainable farm in the Yunguilla Valley that markets high-quality produce here in Cuenca,) to weigh in on Ecuadorian garlic. He said that in Ecuador there are two main varieties sold, the darker “Peruana”, and the lighter “Chilena”. In the U.S. most garlic is either “hard-neck” or “soft-neck”. Other common varieties are elephant, silverskin, and purple stripes…all are mild-tasting; rocambole is definitely spicy. Elephant, which is very mild, is actually a variety of leek.
Buy and Store Garlic Safely
Fresh garlic “heads” are called “bulbs”, and each segment is a clove. Each bulb contains about 10-20 cloves.
The bulbs should be firm and without any dark spots: avoid sprouted heads.
It’s best to store in a mesh bag or loosely woven basket, at about 60-65 degrees and moderate humidity. If you store in your refrigerator drawer (less humidity), then it needs to remain there, because once brought back to room temp it will sprout.
You can freeze garlic (peeled cloves), however, some flavor will be lost.
Dried garlic is easy to prepare: slice your peeled cloves, and use a food dehydrator, or lay the slices on a baking pan and bake in a barely warm oven (set at the lowest setting with the door open) until crisp, and store in an airtight container.
Make a flavored oil by covering a 1/3 cup of sliced garlic with good olive oil.
Warning! You must refrigerate your homemade garlic oil. If homemade garlic-infused oil is left unrefrigerated or kept in the ‘frig for too long, the bacteria spores that cause botulism, a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, may develop. You can’t tell by looking at your oil if it’s unsafe, because it will smell, look and taste the same as usual. Experts say that if you do prepare garlic oil, use it immediately, or refrigerate and use within ONE week. Learn more here.
Here’s a recipe for Roasted Garlic (adapted from SimplyRecipes.com)
Preheat oven to 400°F (205°C). (Can use your toaster oven)
Peel off the outer layers of one or more bulbs of garlic, but don’t separate the cloves.
Slice off the top of the bulb ¼ to ½ inch to expose the individual cloves.
Place in each cup of a muffin pan, cut side up, and drizzle with olive oil, rubbing in the oil. Cover each bulb with a square of tin foil. Or if you don’t have a muffin pan, place each bulb on a square of tin foil, drizzle and rub in the olive oil, and seal the bulb in the foil package.
Bake in preheated oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until the bulbs feel soft when pressed.
When the garlic has cooled enough to handle, use a small, sharp knife to make a small slit around each clove, then squeeze the roasted garlic out of their skins.
Mash onto toasted crusty bread, or mix with Greek yogurt as a topping for potatoes.
Or…How do you like your garlic? Feel free to share your favorite garlic recipes below!
Colorado State University Extension. Flavored Vinegars and Oils.
EatingWell.com. 4 Tips for How to Cook With Garlic.
Independent. Get a crush on garlic: How to get the best out of your bulbs.
Miracle of Garlic. Garlic and the Mediterranean Diet. http://www.miracleofgarlic.com/garlic-and-the-mediterranean-diet/
TED.com. Mark Bittman: What’s wrong with what we eat. https://www.ted.com/talks/mark_bittman_on_what_s_wrong_with_what_we_eat/transcript?language=en
The World’s Healthiest Foods. The Latest News about Garlic.
University of California: Berkeley Wellness. The Power of Garlic. http://www.berkeleywellness.com/supplements/herbal-supplements/article/power-garlic
Wikipedia. Garlic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garlic