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Food For Thought: Garlic is more medicine than food

By Funke Oshifuye

For a small vegetable, garlic sure has a big reputation. Not everyone wants to nibble cloves of fresh garlic with meals nor wants the garlic breath that comes with it.  The herb, affectionately called the “stinking rose”, in spite of its odour, has numerous therapeutic benefits and it is guaranteed to transform any meal into an aromatic and healthy culinary experience.

Garlic’s might is largely due to the sulphur compounds it contains, such as allicin. Garlic is an excellent source of manganese. It is also a very good source of protein and thiamine (vitamin B1). Additionally, garlic also houses vitamins C, B6 as well as the minerals selenium, magnesium, potassium and calcium.

The sulphur compound allicin, provides not only many of the notable benefits of garlic, but also its notorious odour. Allicin is formed during the chemistry of chopping, crushing and chewing garlic. The more thorough the milling, the more allicin is created. Allicin begins to degrade once produced and on cooking, so eating garlic raw and soon after chopping ensures the assimilation of optimum levels.

Allicin has antibiotic, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties, and is the reason why garlic has been used for skin infections such as athletes’ foot, herpes and warts, digestive and lung infections such as diarrhea, coughs and colds, and yeast infections due to Candida species. The diallyl sulphides in garlic are good for the blood and circulation, lowering bad cholesterol and boosting the immune system.

The allium vegetables, including garlic are said to have important anti-cancer properties. Studies have revealed that eating garlic regularly, along with other alliums such as onions reduces the risk of oesophageal, colon and stomach cancer. This may be due to garlic’s ability to reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Garlic’s sulphur compounds such as allicin and ajeone have been found to stop the growth of various cancers in animal laboratory studies, including skin, stomach, colon, breast and oral cancer.

In addition to being a good source of selenium, garlic may be a more reliable source as well. Garlic is what scientists call a “seleniferous” plant: it can uptake selenium from the soil even when soil concentrations do not favour this uptake. Selenium, known for its anti-cancer properties is used by our bodies to produce glutathione peroxidase.

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant. There is preliminary evidence that it may be useful in the management of some cancers, atherosclerosis, diabetes, lung disorders, noise-induced hearing loss, male infertility and prevention of toxic build-up in the body. It may also have some anti-viral activity and has been used to treat AIDS.

Garlic may help improve your iron metabolis. That’s because the diallyl sulfides in garlic can help increase production of ferroportin, a protein that runs across the cell membrane, forming a passageway that allows stored iron to leave the cells and become available where it is needed.

The cardio-protective benefits of garlic may partly rest on the production of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas. Our red blood cells can take sulphur-containing molecules in garlic called polysulphides and use them to produce H2S.

This H2S in turn can help our blood vessels expand and keep our blood pressure in check. Some processed garlic extracts cannot be used by our red blood cells in the same way and do not seem to provide the same level of cardio-protection that is provided by garlic in food form. This goes to show that some of garlic’s unique components are most durable in food versus processed extract form. Allicin, one of garlic’s most highly valued sulphur compounds stays intact for only 2-16 hours at room temperature when it is present in purified extracted form. But when it’s still inside of crushed garlic, allicin will stay viable for 2-1/2 days.

Recent research, though in its early stage suggests that garlic consumption may actually help to regulate the number of fat cells that get formed in our body. Research has shown that in the absence of crushing or chopping, just 60 seconds of immediate microwaving will cause garlic to lose some of its cancer-protective properties. Immediate boiling of whole, intact garlic will also lower these properties, as will immediate addition of a very low-acid ingredient like lemon juice. So allow your garlic to sit, after crushing or chopping before changing the temperature (cooking) and pH (addition of lemon juice).

Two to four grammes of fresh, minced garlic can be eaten each day. However, when eaten excessively, it can leave a distinct odour on the skin and breath, can cause heartburn, upset stomach and allergic reactions. Garlic can also thin the blood so caution is advised to people with blood disorders, those preparing for surgery, and expectant mothers. Side effects from taking garlic supplements include headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches and dizziness.


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