By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition
For thousands of years, humans have treated garlic as something much more than a source of intense flavor. Its history is well documented in almost every culture that had the conditions required to grow it. It was part of both the culinary and the medical repertoire for each culture. It is not common to have a food with such a profound influence on breath and body odor be so adored by most people. While some people do find it offensive as an odor and others have difficulty digesting it, there are few people with a complete aversion to it. This is truly unique, especially when you think about how many people will take great lengths to avoid much less pungent flavors (to name a few, think rosemary, black olives, cumin, curry, and even its cousin raw onion). I, for one, am happy to cross the socially-acceptable line of consumption on most days. In fact, when I taught at the University of Maine, I had a type of garlic odor meter put in place by another faculty member. On days when I crossed the threshold of what was acceptable, there was often a picture of a garlic bulb on my office door with a red line through it.
The more science reveals about the composition and specific health benefits of garlic consumption, the more I believe that most of us have some level of physiological attraction to it. If there is any doubt as to its health benefits by the food as medicine skeptics out there, a simple search on PubMed will reveal well over 1500 papers investigating various aspects of garlic's influence on one area of mammalian physiology or another. Many of these research papers illustrate protection against one or more diseases, often in very significant measures. As is the case with many plants, the greatest qualities arise from its efforts to defend itself against one form of environmental pressure or another. With plants that have significant periods of time below ground, protection against mold or fungus, rodents, and insects becomes paramount. Garlic's high sulfur content and the variety of sulfur-based chemicals generated are reflective of this great effort to survive below ground.
Phytonutrients such as allicin, alliin, and ajoene, as well as high levels of naturally occurring N-acetyl cysteine and selenium, provide incredible anti-inflammatory and antioxidative protection to our body's cells in one way or another. Additionally, the sulfur molecules collectively known as polysulfides, are used by blood vessels to generate dilation that lowers blood pressure. Allicin also blocks angiotensin II, which prevents vasoconstriction, further reducing blood pressure. The effects of fresh garlic on blood lipids is well documented, lowering triglycerides significantly when eaten regularly in doses as low as 1/2 clove per day. It is important to rely on fresh garlic, however, since almost all of the well conducted research found significantly greater medicinal value of fresh garlic over processed or extracted versions.
The way that garlic is purchased, stored, processed, and cooked are also important. Fresh garlic that has been chopped will lose most of its value after two days at room temperature and after approximately 4 days in the refrigerator. Those timelines give us an idea as to what the nutritional value may be, or more appropriately stated, may not be left in that jar of chopped garlic at the market. However, it is beneficial to give garlic approximately 10 minutes of time after chopping it before you add it to a warm pan or to a recipe that requires cooking. This short period of time soon after chopping allows for the production of an enzyme that protects the active phytonutrients from heat loss or damage caused by acids such as vinegar or lemon juice (such as in dressings). This means that we should not only cook at lower temperatures with garlic (250°F is the upper ceiling of temperature before garlic’s significant anti-inflammatory compounds begin to degrade), but that letting it sit on the cutting board while we cut the rest of our vegetables and make other preparations is a good idea.
Whether you are simply enjoying its flavor or looking to lower your blood pressure, enjoy garlic daily if you can….a clove a day is a great goal! Just remember to choose garlic bulbs with hard outer surfaces, avoiding those with soft, spongy textures, and unbroken outer layers of protective papery skin. If cloves are soft, shrunken, brown, or have exposed inner surfaces, they will not only have less beneficial properties but can also ruin recipes with strange or acrid flavors. Also look at the time it takes to peel and cut fresh garlic as an enjoyable experience rather than a time consuming one. It is a great investment in your health – especially since the preprocessed versions just are not the same. In the end, we need to embrace the foods and flavors that we enjoy the most, especially if they are also the healthy ones.
A great way to have one clove per day is to make this simple salad dressing with one meal per day. It is good as dressing on steamed broccoli or on poached fish as well.
Simple Salad Dressing
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar or fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon of ground rosemary
1 teaspoon of thyme
pinch of sea salt
1-2 cloves of freshly chopped garlic
Chop garlic, then let it sit for 5-10 minutes after chopping before mixing it with the acidic lemon juice or vinegar.
Combine this mixture with olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and sea salt. Amounts of each ingredient can be adjusted depending upon personal preferences.
Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.