By Kim O’Hare
Garlic has a certain mystic, shall we say, air about it. It kill slugs, disinfects open wounds, helps keep gangrene at bay and may help prevent some cancers.
Garlic’s Latin name is Allium Sativum, placing it in the family of perennial bulbous plants that includes onions, leeks and shallots. It is native to Central Asia and has long been a key ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. Widely used in most of Europe, Asia and Africa, it only became popular in the past 100 years in North America, one of the by-products of massive immigration and referred to by some as Bronx vanilla.
Garlic’s history is almost as strong as its smell. It was grown in ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists found clay models of garlic bulbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Ancient Greek athletes competing in the earliest Olympic games turned not to steroids but to garlic to enhance their performance. Early Greek soldiers were fed garlic before going into battle to give them courage and increase the odds of victory.
In what’s believed to be the first written mention of garlic, a Sumerian clay tablet dating back more than 4,500 years names the herb in a list of dietary staples. A thousand years later, the Ebers Papyrus — one of the world’s oldest medical texts — lists hundreds of herbal remedies. Twenty-two of them include garlic as an ingredient.
While garlic’s medicinal qualities have been touted for thousands of years, it was only in the middle of the 19th century that scientists began to understand what made garlic effective.
In 1858, the French chemist Louis Pasteur placed cloves of garlic in a petri dish full of bacteria. A few days later, he noticed that a bacteria-free area surrounded each clove. During the Second World War, the British and Russian armies faced a shortage of penicillin. Instead, they used diluted garlic solutions to disinfect open wounds. Modern research has attributed garlic’s healing powers to hundreds of volatile sulfur compounds including allicin, which gives garlic its distinct odour.
Since Pasteur’s early work on garlic’s bacteria-killing power, the herb has been credited with killing 23 types of bacteria, including salmonella and staphylococcus. There has been a raft of studies in recent years looking at garlic’s medicinal qualities.
The power of garlic has become almost mythical in proportion. Not all of the modern research is enthusiastic when it comes to the benefits of the bud. For example, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in February 2007 found that garlic does not lower levels of bad cholesterol. The study involved 192 adults, average age of 50. At the end of it, half the raw garlic eaters reported breath and body odour. Others reported flatulence. There was virtually no effect on cholesterol levels in any of the groups.
Another study, five years earlier, found that Chinese men who ate a lot of vegetables from the allium food group were 50 per cent less likely than other Chinese men to develop prostate cancer. Chinese men have the lowest rate of prostate cancer in the world.
Among the claims made by those who worship garlic: it prevents certain types of cancers, helps regulate blood sugar metabolism, stimulates and detoxifies the liver, stimulates the nervous system and blood circulation, thins the blood as effectively as aspirin – the list goes on and on…
While the scientific jury is still deliberating, garlic can still pose some risks. There have been cases of botulism where people have stuck cloves of garlic in oil to flavour the oil. Refrigeration may help slow down the growth of spores that cause botulism, but it may not be enough to stop the oil from spoiling. This type of oil should be consumed within a week of making it. After that, it should be thrown away.
Health officials also recommend that you not consume garlic for seven to ten days before you are scheduled for surgery, because garlic’s blood-thinning capabilities can prolong bleeding. You should also avoid eating too much raw garlic, a clove or two a day is considered safe in adults. But more of it, especially on an empty stomach, can upset your gastrointestinal system – and maybe leave you on your own at a party.
300 BC: Theophrastus, a scholar and pupil of Aristotle, claims that garlic was placed by ancient Greeks on mounds of stones at crossroads for Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and magic.
500: The Talmud, one of the core texts of Judaism, names garlic as an aphrodisiac, claiming it warms the body, makes the face shine, and increases seminal fluid.
1652: The Complete Herbal, written by British physician Nicholas Culpeper, credits garlic with powers such as healing bites of mad dogs and venomous creatures, ridding children of worms, and curing ulcers.
1858: French chemist Louis Pasteur is the first to describe garlic’s antibacterial properties, after observing bacteria he exposed to the herb die.
1897: English writer Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula refers to the long-standing European superstition that garlic protects against vampires and werewolves. Some suggest that Count Dracula himself was the mastermind behind the belief – since the herb has been shown to thin the blood, it would decrease clotting action, making it easier for vampires to feast on people who consumed it!
1944: Italian chemist C J Cavallito and partner J H Bailey, are the first to identify allicin, the major biologically active component of garlic. The allyl sulphur has been identified as the key ingredient responsible for the herb’s anti-bacterial properties. Subsequent research has also credited it with lowering fat, guarding against blood clots and high blood pressure, and preventing cancer.
1956: Christopher Ranch, now the largest privately owned garlic cultivation site in the U.S., starts as a 10-acre operation. The founder was 22 at the time and decided to grow the herb because he was sick of cultivating prunes with the rest of his family. The facility now produces more that 60 million pounds of garlic a year.
1979: About 15,000 people attend the first annual Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. The three-day summer festival features live music, arts, crafts and food (such as garlic wine, garlic ice cream, and garlic sushi). The event attracts more than 125,000 attendees, and Gilroy is dubbed the “Garlic Capital of The World.” And yes, there is a Garlic Queen. http://www.gilroygarlicfestival.com/
1980: A rash of clinical research examining the role of garlic in reducing blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke begins. Some studies find the herb can reduce blood pressure, decrease cholesterol, fend off common colds, enhance the immune system, and prevent cancer. Garlic is not, however, recommended for preventing or curing bad breath.