Highly valued throughout the ages as a culinary spice, garlic is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. It is a hardy perennial belonging to the liliaceae family. Other members of this family include leeks, chives, spring onions and shallots, all distinguished by their pungent aroma and flavour.
Garlic’s usage predates written history; Sanskrit records document the use of garlic remedies approximately 5000 years ago. Legend suggests that Egyptian pharaohs prized garlic very highly, and slaves building the pyramids were given a daily ration to keep them fit and strong. Throughout history, garlic has been regarded as a well-trusted remedy, especially during epidemics such as cholera and tuberculosis and in World War I, where it was used as an antiseptic applied to wounds to cleanse and heal and to treat dysentery caused by the poor sanitary conditions in the trenches.
The garlic bulb is the most commonly used portion of the plant, composed of eight to 20 individual teardrop-shaped cloves enclosed in a white parchment-like skin. It is an excellent source of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). It is also a very good source of manganese, selenium and vitamin C. In addition, it is a good source of other minerals, including phosphorous, calcium, potassium, iron and copper.
Many of the perceived therapeutic effects of garlic are thought to be due to its active ingredient allicin. This sulphur-containing compound gives garlic its distinctive pungent smell and taste. Luckily for us foodies, the action of chopping or crushing garlic supposedly stimulates the production of allicin; however, it is thought that cooking garlic inhibits the formation of some of the perceived medicinal properties.
Modern research has focused on garlic’s potential to reduce the risk of heart disease, cholesterol levels and cancer. Several studies suggest that garlic makes platelets (the cells involved in blood clotting) less likely to clump together and stick to artery walls, therefore acting as an anticoagulant and reducing the risk of heart attacks. The sulphurous compounds have also been studied for their ability to inhibit cancerous cells and block tumours by slowing DNA replication. The ability of these compounds to depress tumour cell proliferation is still being studied extensively.
This may also lower blood pressure slightly, mainly through its ability to widen blood vessels.
It has a long history of use as an infection fighter against viruses, bacteria and fungi. It has been referred to as ‘Russian penicillin’ to denote its antibacterial properties. Some skin conditions, such as warts and insect bites, may respond to garlic oil or a crushed raw garlic clove.
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