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The Many Uses of Garlic
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor,
University of Vermont
Most of us are only exposed to one type of garlic in supermarkets, so don't
realize how many varieties there really are, and the various benefits of garlic
other than just for cooking.  

There are generally
11 types of garlic, all giving similar health benefits, but with
widely varying flavors.

The Origins of Garlic

Garlic originated in south-central Asia thousands of years ago.  The area of
western China, northern Afghanistan and Iran is called the garlic crescent.  It
was valued then, as it is now, for its flavor, long storage, and certain health
benefits.  It especially was important then, with its antibacterial properties and
strong odor, to both preserve foods and mask rancid smells.

Nomads likely carried garlic to the Mediterranean, where most associate it and
where it originally was believed to have come from.  The earliest known record
of garlic dates back 6000 years to clay artifacts resembling garlic bulbs in
Egyptian tombs.  

Other garlic artifacts have been found in later tombs as well, including bulbs
dating to 1500 B.C.  Mummies were rubbed with it during embalming.  Other
references indicate garlic was being used 5000 years ago in India, 4500 years
ago in Babylon, and at least 2000 years ago in China.
Garlic: Used as an Antibiotic

Garlic spread through trade around the Mediterranean and southern Europe,
being better adapted to these warm climates.  Garlic was one of the original
antibiotics used by Greeks and Romans.  With its long history of cultivation in
this area, many varieties have come from there.  Our original varieties arrived
from there in the 1700's with explorers and early colonists.
Other varieties originated from early cultivation in the Caucasus and Eastern
Europe. These have led to more recent introductions to this country with Polish
and German immigrants.

Most recently, the Caucasus region led to a surge in new varieties (for us) when
the USDA in 1989 was finally allowed into areas of the Soviet Union previously
closed.  Story has it that the plant explorers were accompanied by guards, and
only allowed to roam at night so not to compromise the security of oil fields
and secret missile bases.  Varieties often were named for the villages where
they were found.
Allicin: The Essence of Garlic

All through this history of garlic, its flavoring and therapeutic uses have come
mainly from one chemical, allicin.  This chemical can perhaps be remembered
from the genus name of garlic, and their close relatives the onions (Allium).

It's interesting that allicin doesn't exist in whole garlic cloves, but is formed
quickly from two other chemicals that mix when plant cells are crushed.  If
you've ever smelled or eaten whole garlic cloves, then immediately upon
crushing or mincing them, you've seen just how quickly this chemical reaction
Another key point to know is that allicin is destroyed by heat, as in cooking.  So
if you are after the full health benefits of garlic, you'll need to eat it raw.  Biting,
crushing, chopping, or slicing will release allicin.  Cooking isn't all bad though
from a health perspective, as many other sulfur compounds are released when
cloves are prepared and aren't destroyed by cooking.
Clove a Day

If you do eat raw garlic, studies suggest "a clove a day keeps the doctor away."  
Raw garlic should be consumed with other food to avoid the possibility of
heartburn and stomach upset.  Eating more may cause these symptoms, and
other side effects.  

Garlic may interact with certain medicines, like an anticoagulant, so it is best to
check with your doctor before beginning a regime of garlic for health.  There are
many garlic supplements you'll find in vitamin sections of stores, but the
research on these and their effects is inconclusive.  Of course the most common
side effect of raw garlic is the famous "garlic breath", as well as flatulence in
So why even consider eating raw garlic, or worrying about destroying its
allicin?  This sulfur compound, and other similar ones created from breaking
the garlic cloves, is an effective antibiotic on many organisms.  It may help
reduce salmonella that causes some food poisoning, and some intestinal
infections including diarrhea.  

Garlic + Oil = Botulism

Yet don't store or preserve garlic in oil, as may seem desirable.  Oil provides
the perfect environment for the botulism bacterium to contaminate this low-acid
vegetable, an organism that garlic has no effect on.  
Heart-related studies indicate several benefits including possible cholesterol
lowering, lowering blood pressure, lowering blood glucose, and providing
antioxidant effects that have become more known recently in other foods.  Both
cooked and raw garlic may help reduce the risk of certain cancers, including
gastrointestinal ones.  Increasingly, studies are showing that garlic enhances the
body's immune system.
Cooking with Garlic

If you aren't focused merely on the health effects of garlic, just enjoy it in your
cooking.   Cooking whole, or roasting, results in a mild, caramelized flavor
without the strong aromas.  Chopping releases the flavors, then cooking in oil
serves to enhance these and form the basis for many types of cuisine including
sauces, stews, curries, and stir-fries.  

Just make sure to not cook too much until dark brown or burned, or it will taste
unpleasant.  Cooking in oil until straw-colored or tan results in complex and
nutty flavors.  

Don't merely settle for supermarket garlic, but visit local growers and farmers
markets for more variety.  Better yet,
grow your own garlic!
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