02/09/2011 01:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Centuries of Protection: Getting Your Garlic on


Given the current vampire craze in pop culture (what, you aren't a fan of Twilight or True Blood or Vampire Diaries?!), I find it a little disappointing that the classic age-old protection against these seductive creatures of the night has not been getting more play across the media spectrum. I speak, of course, of garlic! Hung in the window, rubbed on the keyhole, or ingested before bedtime, garlic has been a mainstay of supernatural protection in folklore down through the centuries.

In point of fact, that reputation did not develop randomly or without reason, for garlic is indeed a vigorous source of all kinds of protection for us humans -- just not necessarily against gaunt-cheeked and bloody-fanged changelings. But if you want to talk about guarding against high blood pressure and blood-clotting, against infections from bacteria and viruses and yeasts, against arthritis and asthma and several types of cancer, and even possibly against obesity, you need look no further than the "stinking rose" that figures so prominently in the Mediterranean diet.

The heavy hitter here is sulfur -- garlic is blessed with numerous sulfur-containing compounds that have wide-ranging beneficial effects. On the cardiovascular front, allicin has been shown to minimize unwanted contraction of the blood vessels, while polysulfides contribute to dilation of the blood vessels, both compounds thereby helping to stabilize blood pressure. And a disulfide called ajoene has been shown to regulate the "stickiness" of blood platelets, thereby preventing clotting. At the same time, Vitamins C and B6 step up to the plate by protecting blood vessel walls from several sources of damage.

That strangely-named ajoene makes a further contribution, in that it helps to prevent yeast infections. Historically, garlic has been used to ward off all kinds of infections: the ancient Greeks used it to treat parasites, the Romans used it for smallpox, and medics in the first two World Wars used it in wounds on the battlefield to prevent gangrene.

More research is needed, but there does seem to be considerable evidence that the allyl sulfides in garlic may contribute to reduced risk of certain cancers, especially colorectal and renal cancer. Other research strongly suggests that several of these sulfide compounds can moderate arthritic and allergic airway inflammations; and these anti-inflammatory effects may actually influence the development of the body's fat cells, thereby having a favorable impact on obesity.

Of course, the price you pay for all this beneficence is the proverbial and much-dreaded "garlic breath." Classic remedies include eating parsley (short-term effectiveness only), mushrooms and basil; but according to the Journal of Food Science, drinking whole milk while eating the garlic is the most efficacious method for reducing that pungent odor. Not very appealing, actually -- I'll stick with my garlic breath, and enjoy the plethora of health benefits that a generous dose of the stinking rose can supply...

Garlic and the Environment

I know we're all becoming more aware these days of the environmental costs of globally-available foods. But who would have thought that a tiny little head of garlic could have any appreciable effect on pollution? Well it does, trust me, especially here in California, and here's why...

There's more than enough garlic in this state to supply our needs; we even have the city of Gilroy, known as the Garlic Capital of the World. And yet we export the same amount that we import each year, and it is garlic from China that you're more likely to find on local supermarket shelves. China produces 77% of the world's garlic, the U.S. only 1.4%, and as with so many bulk foreign products, the Chinese garlic is cheaper. But the hidden costs are horrifying. Consider the relative chains of supply: the garlic at your local farmers market traveled in a relatively small vehicle for probably under 200 miles at most; gasoline consumed and emissions created, minimal. The garlic from China traveled on a tanker that probably fueled in South America, sailed across the Pacific to China, loaded up and sailed back another 7500 miles to the West Coast, where fleets of large trucks disseminated the garlic, trailing clouds of vehicle emissions; we're talking 4.5 million pounds of pollutants every year from that total journey. That price is way too high.

And that doesn't even take into consideration the loss of domestic jobs and our nation's increased trade deficit. And fresher garlic is better garlic, period, so the quality of your food suffers too.

So here's what you can do. If you have access to a farmers market, be sure to get your garlic there when you're rejoicing over all those beautiful fruits and vegetables. If you have to buy at the supermarket, ask them where their garlic comes from; if it's not local or at least domestic, tell 'em to shape up and support U.S. growers.

In this age of produce out of season from all over the globe, and foodstuffs flying from continent to continent, it is vital that we re-establish the importance of local sourcing and community responsibility in terms of the food on our table.

So... before you hurl yourself into beneficial culinary activity, one further note to ensure that you get all the goodness from your garlic: it is the physical crushing and chopping of the cloves that releases and activates the compounds, so be sure to start your recipe with that step, and let the garlic sit for a few minutes before cooking with it.

Barley Vegetable Soup w/ Garlic

This healthy, hearty winter soup will warm your bones! Serve it with some crusty bread and a green salad...

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled & coarsely chopped
5 large carrots, peeled & coarsely chopped
4 ribs of celery, coarsely chopped
1 small fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
7 cups organic low-sodium chicken broth (I use Swanson's)
1 1/2 cups pearl barley
Salt & pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Combine onion, carrots, celery, fennel, garlic and thyme. Place in a food processor and pulse until mixture is finely chopped but not pureed.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat. Add vegetable mixture and cook, stirring often, until onions are translucent - about 10 minutes. Add broth, increase heat, and bring to a boil. Add barley, return to a boil; reduce heat to low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Can be made in advance and refrigerated; simply re-heat to serve.)

Ladle into large bowls and garnish with a generous sprinkle of parsley.

Serves 6 as a main course.

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Sublime with your favorite pot roast...

4 large russet potatoes, peeled and halved
1 cup 2% organic milk
4 tablespoons organic unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 whole head of garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 375. Moisten outside of garlic head with 1 teaspoon olive oil, wrap loosely in aluminum foil; roast in oven for 40-45 minutes, until garlic is soft to the touch. Let cool a bit, then slice off the top third of the garlic and squeeze out the soft roasted garlic inside.

Heat the milk and butter together until butter is melted and milk has small bubbles around the edges. Keep warm.

In a large saucepan, place the potatoes in cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook covered at a slight boil until potatoes are soft but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain, return to the heat, and warm and shake for a minute or two to "dry" them.

Mash potatoes roughly with a hand masher. Add warm milk and butter and olive oil, mash a little more. Add roasted garlic, stir thoroughly to combine. Add salt & pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

[A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the February issue of Better Nutrition magazine.]