Saturday, March 14, 2009
Health By Allium
Last year we planted around 700 onions, by sets and seed, this year we hope to grow at least 1,000. It always amazes us how many we use and how fast we go through this dietary mainstay, there just never seems to be enough. Between onions, leeks, and garlic I will be planting well over 2,000 members of the allium family this year, mostly for this year's winter storage. Mrs. H always gets a bit aggravated when I exhibit stinginess with onions in the summer because I am worried about having enough to get us through until the next spring. This year I have decided to plant what I hope will be an excessive amount in order to avoid becoming an onion Grinch.
Alliums are one of the largest genus of plant species in the world, this family includes such edibles as onions, shallots, ramps, scallions, leeks, garlic and chives and are some of the oldest known remedial plants. We grow all of these, except for the ramps which are a form of wild leek, and I hope to get more into the cultivation of shallots and multiplier onions in the future...maybe this fall.
As a firm believer in the health benefits of natural food that is grown in ones own unpolluted non-toxic soil, as usual, I can't help but mention some of the best properties of alliums besides the obvious culinary aspects of this incredible plant species. Being a good source of vitamins B6 and C, along with various other nutrients such as protein, calcium, sulfur, fluoride, vitamin A and E they have long been used for medicinal purposes. These pungent foods are made up of hundreds of beneficial compounds promoting health through the antioxidants they contain.
Fresh and in varying degrees alliums contain sulfur and enzymes that combine when the their cells are damaged. This particular makeup is thought to be designed as a defense mechanism against pathogens in the soil. When attacked the cloves, or bulbs, immediately excrete pungent sulfuric compounds. This becomes quite obvious, especially in onions and garlic, when they are crushed or cut up. Once the cells are broken acids are released in the form of vapors that give onions their tear-inducing properties along with a distinct flavor and smell. The sulfuric acid causes a burning sensation when it reacts with moisture in the eye and then our bodies form tears to help dilute the acid in order to protect the eyes. The sulfur is known for it's antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, and helps stop allergic reactions and inflammation. The best part is that many researchers believe it is possible that one of these enzymes, "allicin"... highly concentrated in garlic, may be an extremely powerful antioxidant. Makes every onion tear I shed worth the irritability. As man made antibiotics continue to decline in effectiveness it only makes sense that we focus more on mother natures original bacteria fighters.
Alliums also contain strong antioxidant chemicals called flavonoids and phenolics which reportedly have been found to provide strong protection against free radical damage...free radicals are essentially atoms that break down cells in our bodies over time causing aging and disease. The over four thousand flavonoids that can be found in everything from apples to black tea are thought to help defend the body against these free radicals and may help prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Flavonoids are not only anti-cancer but also are known to be anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory and so on. The effects of high levels of quercetin, a flavonaoid found in onions, is being investigated as a reducer of blood pressure, and may help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. What it comes down to is that even though much antioxidant research is unproven or unknown, the evidence in it's favor seems to be overwhelmingly positive.
Even without the advances in health and nutritional research that we have today, people far back in history were well aware that these foods had medicinal value as they consumed them regularly, perhaps daily, in order to protect themselves from not only getting sick but as a way to help in the healing process after illness had occurred. It is said that ancient Egyptians used onions to alleviate literally thousands of different ailments.
I have read many an article that has shown studies using these herbs may be just as effective as certain pharmaceutical drugs...without the side effects of course. Unfortunately these medicinal vegetables are probably considered a little too old fashioned to be prescribed by today's sophisticated medical intellects. But us poor country folk can still obtain the many benefits they may provide, especially as a preventative, by simply growing our own.
For this is every cook’s opinion,
No savoury dish without an onion;
But lest your kissing should be spoiled,
Your onions should be thoroughly boiled.
- Jonathon Swift
I must disagree with the Irish poet Jonathon as I think it would be better to spoil the kiss and eat some of the onions raw as we do daily in our salads and reap the many benefits rather then cook all of the goodness out. Either way I hope to reap a mighty harvest of this most versatile vegetable along with it's brethren... over 300 leeks, 700 garlics planted last fall, as many bunching onions as I can find a spot for and of course a few chives for our winter garden rows.