Spice It Up! Boosting Your Health with Spices and Herbs (Part 8)

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Its nickname is “the stinking rose” and it may be good for warding off vampires (if that’s your intent). Yes, I’m referring to garlic, a favorite seasoning of many a professional and amateur chef.

Garlic probably originated in Asia, but it has since spread to pretty much everywhere in the world. Throughout history, this herb has been used both as medicine and as food. Garlic was placed in tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and Egyptian slaves were fed garlic to give them strength in order to build the pyramids. Garlic was a staple in the diet of the ancient Hebrews and is still grown in Israel today. The Greeks used garlic to give their athletes strength during the Olympics, and it was a medicine used by Hippocrates to treat pneumonia, digestion problems, and other ailments.

Most people don’t usually think of garlic as an herb. It’s actually almost like a vegetable, and it’s related to onions, leeks, and chives. Forming a “bulb,” garlic consists of many cloves that are encased in a papery covering. Garlic’s flavor can vary depending on how it’s prepared. For example, the finer you chop garlic, the stronger the flavor. Garlic that’s cooked whole has a much milder flavor, and the longer you cook it, the milder the flavor. (Try roasted garlic — you’d be surprised at how smooth and mild-flavored it is).

Health Benefits
Is garlic good for you? The belief that garlic has health benefits, primarily cardiovascular-related, has waxed and waned over the years. Garlic actually does have a lot to offer besides flavoring food. Several sulfur-based compounds are found in garlic, including allicin and ajoene — not only do they contribute to garlic’s pungent smell and flavor, but it’s thought that these substances are what provide some of garlic’s health benefits. By the way, allicin is only released when garlic is crushed or chopped, so eating whole garlic cloves doesn’t give you nearly the same health boost. Also, cooking degrades allicin, so eating it raw (if you can handle it!) is probably the healthiest way to have garlic.

Source of micronutrients. Garlic is an excellent source of the mineral manganese, along with vitamin B6 and vitamin C. It also contains selenium, calcium, and phosphorous.

Heart disease. The data is somewhat inconclusive, but there’s evidence that garlic may prevent heart disease. One way that garlic is thought to work is by stimulating the release of nitric oxide in artery walls, which, in turn, helps to relax them. Garlic may also help prevent calcification in arteries, decreasing the formation of plaque buildup. And garlic has antioxidant properties, too, which, as we know, can also decrease the chances of heart disease.

High cholesterol. The evidence is somewhat conflicting as to whether taking garlic in fresh, dried, or extract-form can lower LDL cholesterol. Some studies show a benefit, while others don’t.

High blood pressure. Several studies have shown that garlic can lower systolic (the top number) blood pressure by about 5–8 mmHg and may slightly lower the diastolic number (although not significantly). But the catch is that you’d need to consume about 10,000 micrograms of allicin per day to get the benefit. That’s about 4 cloves or 4 grams of garlic! In addition to possibly lowering of blood pressure, garlic may help inhibit the formation of blood clots, too.

Cancer. Preliminary evidence suggests that garlic might lower the risk of several types of cancer, including esophageal, colorectal, prostate, breast, renal, and ovarian cancer.

Antibiotic. Drinking garlic juice was found to block the effects of several antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and in lab animals, garlic blocked methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

For most people, eating garlic is safe. Garlic is also available in supplement form. The most common side effects are pretty harmless: body odor and bad breath! One of the most serious side effects is that garlic can increase bleeding, especially in people who take blood-thinning medicine. Garlic can also interact with one of the drugs used to treat HIV. Eating too much can cause stomach upset. It doesn’t appear to affect blood glucose levels. Some people may be allergic to garlic, especially those who are allergic to onions or chives.

And the best way to get rid of garlic breath? The general consensus is that chewing a sprig of fresh parsley is the key. That and surrounding yourself with others who love garlic as much as you!

Editor’s Note: For more great ways to incorporate garlic into your diet, check out the following recipes:

Basmati rice pilaf
Roasted garlic–Parmesan cauliflower

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