Is there a kitchen in America that doesn’t have a few bulbs of garlic in the pantry? Chop it, mash it, roast it, or sauté it — garlic goes in so many foods we eat today. Add it to a pasta, grain salad, or veggie dip and the dish can quickly go from bland to yummy.
Yes, garlic tastes good. And as you’ve probably heard, it’s also good for you. Whole books have been written about the health benefits of garlic. But can it really make a difference to your health? If so, just how much of it do you really need to eat? And are garlic supplements as effective as fresh garlic?
The research on garlic
Scientists have spent a lot of energy answering these questions. They haven’t discovered any magical powers in garlic, but their research does suggest that compounds in garlic truly contribute to good overall health. Garlic has antibacterial, anticancer, and anti-clotting effects. That’s a lot of benefits from one little vegetable!
- Garlic may your lower blood pressure, at least slightly, and particularly if you have high blood pressure. It relaxes the blood vessels and increases blood flow by boosting our supply of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that that the body produces naturally, but in dwindling amounts as we age.
- The hydrogen sulfide in garlic may also protect the heart from tissue and cell damage. This is the kind of damage that is seen, for example, in heart attack patients or in diabetes patients with cardiomyopathy, a condition that inflames and weakens the muscle tissue of the heart.
- Garlic may slightly lower your cholesterol. In doing so, it may also slow the development of atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart disease or stroke.
- It’s possible that garlic may lower your risk of some cancers, although more research needs to be done before we know for sure. A compound of garlic called allicin produces an acid that helps stop free radicals from damaging cells. This antioxidant effect is more powerful than similar effects found in onions, leeks, and shallots.
- Garlic might reduce the frequency and number of colds when taken for prevention. However, research is still in its early days. The reason for possible reduction in colds is unclear. It may be that allicin blocks enzymes that are active in bacterial and viral infections. Or, it may be that people who eat lots of garlic avoid catching other people’s germs because no one gets too close to them!
- A gel containing ajoene, a chemical found in garlic, can clear up fungal infections of the skin such as athlete’s foot. But watch out! Burns and skin damage are possible if garlic is directly applied to the skin.
Scientists agree that garlic is a healthy ingredient and should be a part of every diet. Still, it’s important to note that many claims about garlic’s benefits are based on test tube studies or animal studies. There’s still very little research in humans showing significant effects.
How to reap garlic’s benefits
If you want to increase the amount of garlic that you eat, you’ll find that it’s easy to incorporate more into your diet. I like to sauté a little in olive oil when I make scrambled eggs for breakfast. Every year during basil season, I make many jars of garlic pesto. I’m also a big fan of pita sandwiches filled with garlicky hummus or tzatziki and vegetables. (In case you’ve never had it, tzatziki is a delicious creamy dressing made of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and herbs.) And of course for dinner, garlic goes into almost everything I cook!
To really benefit from the protective effects of garlic, some research indicates that we should eat at least two medium-sized garlic cloves every day. In general, though, the more garlic you eat, the more protective it is. Scientists have made some suggestions for getting the most out of whatever amount you eat:
- Eat it fresh. Fresh garlic has significantly higher levels of allicin than jarred.
- Store it at room temperature.
- After you crush a garlic clove, allow it to sit for about 10 minutes. This triggers an enzyme reaction that boosts the healthy compounds in garlic.
- Eat it raw – for example, in salad dressing or hummus — whenever possible, if you can tolerate the very strong taste! Cooking garlic reduces the protective activity of allicin.
Garlic appears to be safe for almost everyone. However, if you dislike garlic or have trouble digesting it, you may consider taking garlic-powder supplements. But it’s important to know that the beneficial compounds in garlic may be less potent once processed into a pill. It’s also unclear if certain garlic supplements are better than others.
Also, if you’re increasing your intake of fresh garlic or garlic supplements, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
- Large doses of garlic may interfere with some medications and reduce their effectiveness. Garlic seems to affect enzymes in the liver that help remove certain drugs from the body. The result could be diminished levels of some drugs in the body. This effect could be particularly important in people undergoing chemotherapy. If you’re thinking about taking garlic supplements, talk to your doctor first.
- Large amounts of garlic can thin the blood, so it can slow blood clotting. Taking garlic along with medications that also slow clotting (for example: ibuprofen, clopidogrel, or warfarin) increases the chances of bruising and bleeding. If you’re about to have surgery, ask your doctor whether you should temporarily avoid extra garlic.
- Garlic may irritate your stomach. If you have heartburn, acid reflux (GERD), or an ulcer, it could make these conditions worse.
- And about your breath and body odor: The body releases some of the compounds in garlic in the breath and sweat because it can’t break them down during digestion. So garlic’s distinct odor can linger long after you’ve eaten it. Routine brushing and flossing can eliminate some of these odors. It’s also possible that drinking milk (both fat-free and whole) can block the stinky effects of garlic.
- It’s possible to sweat out the smell of garlic through your skin, too. An extra shower might be needed hours after a garlic-loaded meal.
New ways to enjoy garlic
I think it’s important to point out that there’s a lot more to garlic than what you find in most grocery stores. Diana Dyer — a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board — is an expert on growing and cooking with garlic. Diana is a dietitian, cancer survivor, and organic farmer.
Every fall, Diana plants more than 50 different varieties of garlic on her Michigan farm. The varieties differ in size, color, shape, and taste.
At summer harvest, she reaps more than 17,000 bulbs of garlic. She sells these at local farmers’ markets, where she also spreads the word about two things that are entirely new to me: green garlic and garlic scapes.
- Green garlic results from digging up garlic cloves in the spring, before the clove turns into a bulb. The most mild-flavored form of garlic, green garlic is eaten like green onions – both the white clove and green shoots. Diana suggests using it raw to preserve its flavor, such as tossing it into salads, adding it at the last moment to stir-fry or hot pasta, or topping a pizza after it’s cooked.
- Garlic scapes are the green stem or flower-stalk that grow from some varieties. Although often discarded, they are increasingly available at farmers’ markets and some Asian markets. The scapes taste garlicky but with a fresh “green” taste and less bite than garlic cloves. You can use them anywhere you’d use garlic cloves. They work particularly well stirred into dips and sauces.
Diana is passionate about how nutrition can be used as one strategy for reducing risk of developing cancer or its recurrence. And she’s particularly interested in garlic’s potential cancer-fighting role. Her website provides lots more information about both. In particular, her website has many delicious, healthy recipes that have inspired me to try garlic in new ways. To help inspire you, I am including a particularly creative one here. Try it and let me know what you think!
Modified from a recipe in Tomatoes, Garlic, Basil, by Doug Oster.
From Diana: Use this on anything and nearly everything, such as bread, baked potatoes, pizza base, gyros, bruschetta, soups, egg salad, or even straight (here is where the “wowza” comes in!!!). Be creative!
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled, trimmed of ends and any imperfections
¼ cup parsley
½ to 1 teaspoon salt
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Pepper to taste
½ to 1 cup olive oil
Process garlic and parsley in a food processor until finely chopped. Then add in the remaining ingredients and process until smooth.
Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator in a glass jar, covered with about ¼-inch olive oil, for up to 1 month.
If you are interested in growing your own garlic, Diana says, “For growing in pots, we recommend deep deep pots, not shallow ones, because garlic roots will easily go down 8-12 inches when planted in the ground, and they do not like being crowded.” For more tips, including how to grow garlic in your backyard, visit the Dyer Family Organic Farm.