Garlic (Allium sativum) has long been used as a folk remedy for colds, coughs and flu, to repel insects and ward off the plague, as an antidote for poison and as a disinfectant. The antiseptic and digestive properties of garlic have been studied and well documented in the 20th century, and garlic faces a great future in the 21st century.
According to recently published figures in the September 2003 issue of Chemical and Engineering News, garlic closely follows echinacea as a top seller for herbal medicines in the United States.
James Duke, Ph.D., is an ethnobotanist with more than 30 years of experience working with medicinal herbs and is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser. On Duke’s list of the top five herbs for all ailments, garlic is at the top — Duke indicates 65 uses: for minor irritations such as dandruff, flatulence and insect bites; ailments like arthritis, ringworm and tumors; and serious conditions such as arteriosclerosis, cancer and gangrene. Although I’ve heard of using garlic to stave off vampires, Duke, who frequently travels in Central and South America, is the only person I know who uses garlic to repel vampire bats from biting his toes!
A Bevy of Benefits
Fresh garlic is known for its antioxidant protection and its antibacterial, anti-carcinogenic, anti-coagulant, antifungal and antiviral properties, to name just a few. Its warming, pungent flavor makes it a stimulant to the immune system. Garlic lowers fever by promoting sweating and helps to eliminate toxins from the body.
The herb also is used to elevate good HDL cholesterol and for lowering bad LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. It’s helpful for heart disease and in treating cancer, flu and colds, sore throats, earaches, intestinal bugs, viral infections and much more.
Raw garlic rates the best medicinally because it contains the highest content of active ingredients. Once garlic is cooked, its chemistry changes and it offers other benefits that differ from the fresh.
Garlic is safe for most people, but consult your health-care provider before using it if you take blood-thinning medications or have a sensitive stomach.
How Garlic Works
When garlic is cut or crushed, a sulfur-containing compound called alliin comes into contact with an enzyme called alliinase. Alliinase breaks down alliin to allicin, a sulfinic acid that’s responsible for garlic’s pungent odor.
Allicin is considered one of the most important biologically active compounds in raw garlic. It’s believed to be the source of garlic’s antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antiviral activities. And as allicin sits, it changes into other chemical compounds, mostly diallyl disulphide, which is attributed to lowering cholesterol.
Allicin is available only when garlic is used raw, as cooking or heating garlic destroys alliinase, the compound necessary to convert alliin to allicin and thus essential to garlic’s potency. Thus, one could say that garlic packs the biggest punch culinarily and medicinally when it’s eaten raw.
When garlic is cooked or heated, allicin deteriorates quickly into other chemical compounds. However, some studies have shown that alliin possesses antibiotic properties and is present when garlic is cooked or in preparations that use heat in their processing.
Fresh Is Best
Much of the prejudice against garlic might vanish if more people ate fresh, sweet, crisp-tender garlic rather than garlic that has been stored too long and is often old, yellow or dried out. Garlic salt, powder, flakes, chips and chopped garlic preserved in oil are even further removed from the true taste of fresh garlic. These products tend to leave bitter, metallic off-flavors that linger long after the other ingredients are forgotten.
Dried, powdered garlic varies enormously in its health benefits. Garlic salt lingers on the palate, leaving an unpleasant garlic breath, and has no medicinal value. Generally, garlic powder and garlic flakes sold for culinary purposes have unpleasant aftertastes and very few medicinal benefits. Standardized garlic capsules and supplements sold at health-food stores are of medicinal value and have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria. The more processing garlic undergoes, the more health-giving benefits are destroyed. Art Tucker, Ph.D., a botanist and co-author of The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave, 2000), states, “The active principals are completely eliminated in deodorized products.”
I agree with the rest of the garlic lovers — if it is garlic, you should be able to smell it!
To maintain my health, I eat at least one clove of raw garlic daily, or three to four cloves cooked. If I feel I’m coming down with something, I might increase my raw consumption to three or more cloves per day or put a whole bulb in a pot of soup.
According to Pat Crocker, author of The Healing Herbs Cookbook (Robert Rose, 1999), one clove of raw garlic provides about 6 grams of protein, 29 mg of calcium, 202 mg of phosphorous, 529 mg of potassium and 15 mg of vitamin C. Garlic also contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, natural sugars, the nucleic acid adenosine and trace minerals such as copper, germanium, iron, manganese, selenium, tin and zinc. The amounts of these vary depending upon the varieties of garlic and the soil in which it’s grown.
Some of my favorite, easy and delicious recipes for eating raw garlic and briefly cooked garlic follow below. May the goodness of garlic grace your table.
• American Health & Herbs Ministry, organic garlic tincture, www.healthherbs.com
• Nature’s Way, garlic capsules, alcohol-free tincture and Garlicin formulas, www.naturesway.com
• Wakunaga of America, Kyolic garlic extract, www.kyolic.com
Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist, food writer and photographer. She has co-authored several cookbooks and writes articles for many national magazines. One of Susan’s missions in life is to get everybody to eat garlic every day—then no one will notice if you have garlic breath.