Written By: Geri Wohl, CNC
Allium sativum, otherwise known as garlic, is a popular flavoring to many dishes. This ubiquitous vegetable is used worldwide for both culinary purposes as well as therapeutic support of many medical conditions. Originating in Central Asia over 6000 years ago, garlic is in the same family as leeks, onions, shallots and chives. In fact, spring garlic looks similar to scallions with long green leaves and a white bulb in the ground. While China is the largest producer of garlic, we are fortunate that in our own backyard we have Gilroy where the majority of US garlic is grown.
Spring garlic has a very short season. Also known as green garlic, it has a subtle flavor when compared to the garlic that we usually buy. Spring garlic is immature garlic that looks like a slightly overgrown scallion. The cloves are not well defined so they don’t require peeling before use. Spring garlic can typically be substituted for onions, scallions or leeks. Try using it when wanting the texture of scallions and the flavor of garlic. While garlic bulbs should never be refrigerated, spring garlic is best wrapped in a damp paper towel, placed in a plastic bag and stored cold for up to seven days.
There is much in the way of folklore about the effects of garlic ranging from warding off vampires to protecting from the “Evil Eye”. Much of this lore probably derives from the odor and powerful properties of sulfur. Garlic is sometimes referred to as the “stinking rose”. While fresh garlic doesn’t have any odor, garlic when cut or crushed starts a chemical reaction resulting in sulfur compounds being released. One of these compounds, allicin, has been extensively studied. Our olfactory senses notice garlic’s unique aroma. Sulfur is incredibly important to many of our body systems, as all living beings require sulfur. It is one of the most abundant minerals in the body concentrated in our muscles, skin, bones and some amino acids. For more about skin health, see my article, “Super Summertime Skin“. Since we use sulfur daily, it constantly needs to be replenished for optimal health. The easiest way is by food. Fortunately there are many foods that contain sulfur, such as eggs, meat, poultry, legumes, nuts, cruciferous vegetables and vegetables in the allium family.
While the pungent aroma of garlic may be a turnoff to some, the health benefits of garlic are numerous. It is low in calories with a single clove having 2-7 calories, depending on the size. It is an excellent source of manganese and vitamin B6, both of which play a role in carbohydrate metabolism or converting our food into glucose to provide us with energy. Manganese also is necessary in forming our connective tissues, bones, blood clotting factors and sex hormones. Vitamin B6 supports the production of neurotransmitters and the functioning of our nervous and immune systems. Besides these two nutrients, garlic is a very good source of vitamin C and a good source of selenium, an important antioxidant.
Consuming garlic has potential cardiovascular benefits. Studies have shown that garlic has a positive effect on lowering atherosclerosis. One of the benefits of garlic’s sulfur compounds is improving the elasticity of our blood vessels, allowing oxygen and other nutrients to pass through the cell walls and providing nourishment. As an antioxidant, vitamin C found in garlic helps protect LDL cholesterol from being oxidized. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is of concern due to the potential for plaque build up in the arteries. For more about vitamin C’s role, see my article, “Nectarine Nutrition“. Garlic also helps in lowering blood pressure.
Garlic has many anti-inflammatory compounds that support our immune system. The sulfur compound, allicin, is able to quench free radicals that are the root of many serious health conditions. Garlic also has antimicrobial properties. Allicin has been shown to be effective against the common cold, flu, stomach virus and candida yeast. If you have a cold, try some garlic tea as a soothing remedy. The sulfur compounds may also help those suffering from respiratory and musculoskeletal ailments.
Garlic has also being studied for its anti-cancer properties. Garlic may help to alter cellular communication of cancer cells, making cancer less likely to proliferate. In preliminary studies, the National Cancer Institute has reported that intake of garlic was found to lower the risk of many types of cancers especially of the gastrointestinal tract. Garlic has also been used to heal wounds. In fact, during WWI before antibiotics existed, garlic was applied directly to open wounds to help heal and prevent infection.
To get the most out of either spring or fully-grown garlic, it should be crushed at room temperature and allowed to sit for about 15 minutes to allow the chemical reactions to occur. Raw, freshly minced garlic possesses the most health benefits and has the most intense flavor. Bad breath may result but it can be remedied by eating several sprigs of parsley. When cooking, dice garlic finely and sauté at a low temperature to prevent any burning. Cooking does partially inactivate some of the health promoting properties of garlic, notably its anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. The others are retained. Garlic should be stored at room temperature in a cool, dark place away from heat and high humidity. If cloves look withered or sprouted, the garlic should be replaced. Garlic bulbs typically will keep for several months depending on storage conditions. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends consuming 2-4 grams of freshly minced garlic per day. A clove is typically about 1 gram. Those on blood thinners should avoid garlic because it can inhibit blood clotting.
For a delicious vegetable recipe using garlic, see my recipe for sautéed kale, red onions and beans on my early spring 2014 recipes page.
Here’s to a delightful way to spice up your spring!
© Geri Wohl, CNC