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Garlic breath may be a sign of health

May 22, 2002|BY LYNN F. LITTLE

Garlic long has been revered as a special food, not just for the unique flavor it imparts to foods, but for its medicinal value.

There is evidence that Egyptians worshiped garlic, having placed clay models of the bulb in Tutankhamen's tomb. It is said that Hippocrates himself used garlic vapors to treat certain cancers.

In 1858, Louis Pasteur noted that bacteria died when doused with garlic. During World War I, British physicians treated battle wounds with garlic preparations when antibiotics were scarce.

Although these remedies sound like folklore, modern science provides evidence to back up garlic's claim to fame. Garlic, as well as onions, leeks, chives and shallots, belong to a family of plants called allium.

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Vegetables and herbs in the allium family contain sulfur compounds that give them their pungent flavors and fragrances. Recent studies suggest these compounds may be potent inhibitors of the cancer initiation process, especially for colorectal and stomach cancers.

Garlic also has been widely studied for its role in cardiovascular health. Recent studies that have examined the effects of garlic on blood cholesterol have shown mixed results. Some studies have shown a reduction in LDL cholesterol, or bad cholesterol levels, while others have not.

Garlic has been studied for immune-boosting properties, further solidifying its place in the medicinal plant hall of fame. Numerous studies performed in recent years indicate that the compound allicin, found in fresh garlic, has antibiotic and anti-fungal properties.

The chemical composition of garlic changes in response to being heated and even chopped, but nobody is quite sure which form delivers the most punch. For example, allicin is released when fresh garlic is chopped or pressed, but destroyed with heating. It is for this reason that capsules, which contain processed garlic, may not be as effective as the real thing.

When selecting fresh garlic, look for plump, firm, large-cloved bulbs in which the outer skin is tight, unbroken, and free of soft spots and sprouts. It is not necessary to refrigerate garlic, and it's better not to since its odor spreads quickly to the other food in the refrigerator.

It will keep several months at room temperature when stored in a cool, dry place that allows good air circulation. When stored in hot and humid conditions, the garlic will begin to sprout and turn moldy. A mesh bag or specially designed, covered terra-cotta jar with holes in the sides works well. Avoid storing garlic in plastic bags or sealed containers, as this tends to cause the garlic to whither and rot.

Properly stored, most garlic bulbs can last for up to six months at cool room temperatures. Garlic can be frozen as is, after removing the outer skin, for about 2 months.

For easy peeling, crush the garlic lightly with the flat side of a knife, after which the peel should practically come off by itself. Remove the green sprout that is sometimes found at the center of each clove, as it is difficult to digest and causes the odor to linger on the breath.

Although it can be eaten as a vegetable, garlic is most commonly used as a condiment. It is used as a flavoring agent in a wide variety of foods, including vinaigrettes, soups, vegetables, tofu, meats, stews, cold meats and marinades.

For a mild garlic flavor, rub the inside of salad bowls or fondue dishes with half of a peeled raw clove. A few cloves of garlic can also be added to oil to give it extra flavor. The green stems of fresh garlic may be used in place of shallots or chives.

The flavor of garlic is released only when it is cut, crushed or chopped; rupturing the skin causes the release of substances that are activated on contact with air. The more finely the garlic is chopped or crushed, the stronger its flavor.

For maximum flavor, add the garlic at the end of the cooking. Cooking it too long will detract from its flavor. Do not let garlic brown when you are sauting it, as this destroys the flavor and makes it, as well as the food it accompanies, bitter.

While it is not necessary to keep fresh garlic in the refrigerator, if you make dressings, oils, butters or marinades containing garlic, be sure to keep these refrigerated and use within two to three weeks. Garlic and oil mixtures stored at room temperature can support the growth of Clostridium botulinum and the subsequent production of a deadly toxin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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