In praise of garlic

In praise of garlic

This week's super food is garlic. Its many and varied health benefits are well known and a recent Chinese study found that it could cut the risk of lung cancer in half. But wonderful as the aromatic bulb is, enjoying its benefits may not be quite as simple as reaching for a second slice of garlic bread...

The many uses of garlic

Garlic has a long and impressive history as a medicinal herb, with its first uses as such documented in India 5000 years ago and in China 3000 years ago. It boosts your immune system and has helped people ward off infectious illnesses ranging from the common cold to malaria and hospital super bugs. Ailments as diverse as stomach bugs and impotence have responded to treatment with garlic. It's useful for skin infections, allergies and respiratory problems. And lots of our lifestyle diseases respond well to garlic – it reduces blood pressure and lowers cholesterol, so it's useful for heart disease and stroke. It also has a role to play in weight regulation, as it helps to keep insulin levels stable and can combat the low-grade inflammation that is thought to contribute to obesity. Finally, lots of different types of cancer have responded well to garlic.

It's not surprising that one journalist writing for The Telegraph, listing its benefits, mischievously claimed that it seemed to possess the power to raise the dead and wondered whether garlic would soon be prescribed on the NHS.

Garlic and lung cancer in the headlines

A study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research at the beginning of August has brought garlic into the headlines this month. Researchers at the Jiangsu Provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in China studied 1,424 patients with lung cancer and compared them to 4,543 healthy controls between 2003 and 2010. It's a large-scale study both in terms of the size of the sample and the time span over which it was carried out, which allows detailed analysis of variables contributing to cancer.

With any study of this size there will be lots of findings, but the one that made the headline was the association between garlic and reduced risk of lung cancer: Participants who consumed raw garlic two or more times a week showed a 44% reduction in the risk of developing lung cancer. Even amongst participants who smoked, the regular consumption of garlic was still associated with a 30% risk reduction.

So how does garlic do this? It's not entirely clear. There are many active components in garlic and previous research indicates that it may be allicin that plays a key role in reducing inflammation and acting as an anti-oxidant in the body, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. Allicin is released when garlic is chopped or crushed  but it's not clear how active it remains once garlic is cooked.

Raw garlic...?!

Did you take in that last line? It's not clear how active allicin remains once garlic is cooked. And there's the downside. Most of the studies that document the amazing benefits of garlic refer to raw garlic, and an impressive consumption thereof. This is something that doctors and researchers tend to gloss over. But the rest of us may well raise an eyebrow. Of course we are all committed to maximising our health in every possible way. But raw garlic, three times a week... Really? Can we bear the taste? Can we face the smell?!

Is there anything we can do to make raw garlic more palatable and its effects on our breath less fierce? Here are some suggestions:

  • Mix garlic with fat. Any kind of fat. Make up a guacamole or a dip using full-fat yoghurt, for example. Somehow mixing garlic with fatty foods makes it less pungent and easier on the palate.
  • Experiment with different recipes. Bruschetta is an obvious one. Eating garlic sliced very thinly on to pieces of apple may sound more outlandish but comes highly recommended for those of us who are garlic wimps.
  • There are lots of supposed remedies for garlic breath. Drinking a glass of milk is supposed to help, as is chewing fennel seeds, mint, parsley or coffee beans (presumably not all at the same time!). But the trouble is, garlic goes straight into your bloodstream. That's why it's so effective. Even if you partially cover up its traces on your breath, your very skin will smell of the stuff.

To supplement or not to supplement?

So is the answer to consume a garlic supplement? There are certainly plenty of these available, from dried garlic flakes that you can shake over your food to neat inoffensive little capsules that purport to give you all the benefits of garlic without the side effects.

There are two main caveats to the use of supplements, though. First of all there are the warnings associated with the use of any supplements – these aren't jelly beans and need to be treated with respect. The blood-thinning properties of garlic, in particular, mean that you ought to seek medical advice about supplements if you are taking any blood-thinning medication such as Warfarin or aspirin, or are due to have surgery.

Secondly, and rather crucially, the evidence of health benefits is far stronger for raw, unprocessed garlic than any derivations. This is probably the case because the very processes employed to make garlic more palatable and less smelly – drying, cooking and turning it into powder or flake form – also reduce the potency of its active components. So taking supplements may be the less smelly option but it may also be a waste of money.

So if you're serious about reaping the health benefits of garlic, you might just need to put up with the smelliness. Whether that's a price you're happy to pay is a very personal choice, and one that says a lot about our modern lifestyle and our approach to health and well being.



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