Is That an Onion or an Apple?

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Onions and garlic have been cultivated for several thousand years and are part of the Allium family, which also includes chives, leeks, shallots, and scallions.


These vegetables are rich in organosulfur compounds, which are believed to give these special vegetables their cancer-fighting abilities.


One large European study found a link between the consumption of onions and garlic and a decreased risk in breast cancer as well as cancers of the mouth, esophagus, colon, larynx, ovaries, and prostate. In fact, the study noted a 50 to 80 percent reduction of all major cancers. In addition, a French study found a statistically significant decrease in breast cancer risk among those who ate the most onions, garlic, and fiber.


Onions and garlic come with many additional health benefits. Both vegetables contain vitamins B6 and C as well as important minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, and copper. They are anti-inflammatory and can thin the blood, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Garlic is also antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal.



There’s What in My Onion?


There is a downside to the onion, however, which may surprise you.


Did you know that most onions in American supermarkets have as much sugar as the sweetest apples available?


According to the book Eating on the Wild Side, in 1900 a large, mild and sweet onion variety was discovered on the island of Corsica. Four to five decades of selective breeding and clever marketing later, many onions available in the U.S. were large, high in sugar and low in antioxidants.


Nowadays, the large sweet varieties available far outweigh the “hot” ones. In fact, some common varieties are so sweet they go by names like Jumbo Sweet, Sweetie Sweet and Candy Cane, and contain as much as 16 percent sugar.


At least the names serve as a pretty good warning sign of what you’re getting.


Breeding for sweetness and size is a problem for a couple important reasons. First, onions aren’t the only fruit or vegetable that have been subject to this type of selective breeding or genetic modification. We’ve bred hundreds of fruits and vegetables for size and sweetness, thus creating for ourselves a diet much higher in sugar and carbohydrates than we are genetically adapted for or Mother Nature intended.


Second, the beneficial nutrients in many fruits and vegetables are what makes them taste bitter or sour. By breeding that out, we’ve also bred out much of the nutrients that make these foods special. In fact, Eating on the Wild Side cites a 2004 test-tube study showing extracts of strongly flavored onions killed 95 percent of human liver and colon cancer cells, while extracts of sweet onions only killed 10 percent.


Also, when it comes to onions size does matter. These enormous softball-sized onions you see in stores contain far more water than smaller onions, which means the concentration of nutrients is lower.


In other words, we’ve bred the nutrition right out of many of our fruits and vegetables.


The good news is there has never been an effort to make garlic larger, sweeter or milder tasting. As a result, most of their wild nutrients remain.



How to Shop for Onions and Garlic




For maximum antioxidants, Eating on the Wild Side recommends looking for bold-flavored red or yellow onions. Mild red onions can be identified by their wide, flat shape. Look for the hotter varieties instead, which are oblong shaped. Northern Red is a good hot red onion with high antioxidant value.


The varieties of yellow onions highest in antioxidants include Western Yellow and New York Bold. Sweet varieties include Vidalia, Walla Walla, Texas 101 and of course, any with the word “sweet” in the name.


Unfortunately, identifying hot or sweet onions isn’t always easy. A quick trip to two regional/national natural foods stores told me the varietal name is not necessarily going to be displayed. Your best bet is to get to know your local produce manager. Or better yet, shop for onions (and other produce) at your local farmers market, where you’re more likely to see a wider selection and the varietal names displayed.


Another tip for increasing the antioxidant content in your dish is to substitute shallots or scallions (also known as “green onions”) for regular onions. Ounce for ounce, shallots have six times more nutrients than your average onion. In addition, Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, states in this interview that green onions have 100 times more phytonutrients than other onions.


Last, look for firm onions with intact outer skins, which protects the antioxidants as well as protects the onion from fungal infections and mold. Depending on what you’re making, consider using the onion’s skin to add both nutrients and a rich golden color to your dish. Believe it or not, the highest concentration of nutrients is in the skin.


I frequently use the whole onion (quartered) in my homemade bone broth, which I call “liquid gold” for its nutritional power. But only do this with organic onions and rinse beforehand to removed any dirt, dust, or germs from being handled by others at the store.




As mentioned earlier, there has never been an effort to make garlic larger, sweeter or milder tasting. Therefore, sugar content is not something you need to worry about.


In the store, look for bulbs that are plump and hefty. A bulb that feels light for its size is probably dried out. As with onions, the skin should be tight and not loose and papery.


Also, there is a lot of bad news on the Internet related to garlic from China. Many claim the garlic – even organic – is bleached, fumigated, sprayed with chemicals, and/or grown with questionable practices. Is this all true? Honestly, I have no idea. But I’m unwilling to take that chance since in 2007, over 60 percent of recalls in the U.S. were of goods from China.


There’s a lot of conflicting advice on the Internet about how to spot Chinese garlic. The most reliable way to find out where yours came from is to ask your produce manager or buy from your local farmers market.


There’s one piece of good news when it comes to onions and garlic – neither are high in pesticide residue so you don’t necessarily have to buy organic.



How to Prepare Onions and Garlic


A substance called allicin – formed from two other substances in garlic – creates its protective sulfur compounds. According to Eating on the Wild side, these substances are isolated in separate compartments and must be commingled through chopping, crushing or chewing in order for allicin to form.


However, the formation of allicin cannot happen in heat, although it is relatively heat-stable. Therefore, to ensure you are getting the most health benefits from your garlic, chop or crush your garlic and let it set for 10 minutes before adding it to any heat source. The book also says that a garlic press – eschewed by some chefs – actually does the best job of comingling these two substances.


To maximize the protective benefits of garlic, follow the Eating on the Wild Side’s advice: Press, then rest.


You don’t need to worry about letting allicin form in onions since it is not an essential part of their nutrient content. However, because the beneficial compounds in onions are concentrated toward the outside of the onion, remove as little of the edible portion on the outside as possible when peeling. And as mentioned previously, when possible, use the skin of the onion for added nutrients.


Last, one of the most beneficial phytonutrients in onions is quercetin, which has been shown to have anticancer properties. Studies have also shown that baking, sautéing, roasting and frying onions actually increases their quercetin content, not the opposite. Cooking “hot” onions also makes them milder and sweeter, so don’t be afraid to cook your onions.


For best results when it comes to fighting cancer, strive to eat least two cloves of garlic and one-half of an onion every day. And remember:


Make garlic, onions and other alliums the foundation of your anti-cancer diet.


Informed. Empowered. FIERCE.





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2 thoughts on “Is That an Onion or an Apple?

  1. Allison Donner

    Great article, Kristina. Thank you! So, just to be clear, the benefits of garlic are not altered when it’s cooked; you just need to let it rest in its mashed up state before cooking it. Is that correct?

    1. Kris Sampson Post author

      Yes, that’s what I have always read and learned. As long as you don’t cook the living daylights out of your garlic the allicin will survive heat. But it won’t form in heat, which is why you want to chop it and then let it sit for awhile before cooking.