Don’t Hold the Onions

As delicious as they are aromatic, members of the onion family supply
good health along with good taste.


By Eric Schneider

February 2010

It’s not easy being in the genus Allium. While some members of this lily-affiliated vegetable and herb family—which includes onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks and chives—are relatively well-regarded, onions literally bring people to tears, and garlic is best known in popular culture as a vampire deterrent. Making matters worse are the less-than-alluring effects these foods have on one’s breath. What the allium-averse may not know, however, is that onions, garlic and other members of this pungent family not only enhance many dishes but also provide a surprising number of health benefits.


Many members of the onion family can be traced to ancient Egypt and Greece. Since that time, they have been incorporated into traditional meals and medicines throughout the globe. Irwin Goldman, PhD, associate professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, notes that onions have had both culinary and medicinal uses for millennia. “It is not surprising to find thousands of references to its medical uses in herbals and other documents,” Goldman says. Centuries later, the Allium family is revered for its health-boosting qualities: Late last year, Moldova’s army was said to be issuing onions and garlic to their soldiers in hopes of strengthening their immune systems and fighting off the growing Eastern European presence of the H1N1 flu virus. Even more intriguing is preliminary research that suggests that onions and its allium associates may play a role in preventing various forms of cancer.

So the next time you’re inclined to “hold the onions” or avoid one of their kin, keep them in the mix, and you’ll have a considerably more flavorful and nutritious dining experience.

ONIONS

Research Report: Cholesterol- and fat-free, onions are high in vitamin C and fiber. They have been associated with anti-microbial and -inflammatory effects, improved cardiovascular health, and reduced cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Kimberly Reddin of the National Onion Association in Greeley, Colorado, says onions are rich in powerful sulfur-containing compounds called thiosulfinates and generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin. Also found in apples and tea, quercetin is currently the subject of considerable research for its substantial antioxidant properties.

Kitchen Notes: Eye irritation from cutting onions can be limited by chilling or running them under water before slicing. Though onions are wonderful served raw in a salad or on a sandwich, when cooking them, Reddin recommends, “For the best sautéed or caramelized onion flavor, use low heat. High heat can cause onions to taste bitter.”

 

GARLIC

Research Report: Boasting even more aromatic personality than onions, garlic (primarily considered an herb) features high amounts of manganese, selenium and vitamins B6 and C. Like onions, garlic contains beneficial thiosulfinates, may help boost cardiovascular health and exhibits anti-microbial and -inflammatory properties. Studies have also shown that garlic may be linked to the prevention of weight gain and to reductions in blood pressure.

Kitchen Notes: Similar to its other paper-skinned brethren, garlic retains most of its nutrients when lightly cooked or baked, though its flavor and nutritive content are strongest when raw. For many dishes, using a garlic press to crush the cloves is the tidiest and most efficient method—and you don’t have to peel the cloves before pressing. In recent years, garlic has become appreciated for more than just its cloves; garlic scapes, the long milder-flavored green stalks of the plant, have increased in popularity.

 

SHALLOTS

Research Report: Grown in clusters and often appearing as teardrop-shaped onions, shallots are similar to onions and garlic, but tend to have a sweeter, more nuanced flavor. Shallots are rich in folate, potassium and vitamins A and C; like onions, they are linked to improved circulation and lowered cholesterol levels. A study conducted at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York found that shallots contained significantly more beneficial phenols and flavonoids than onions (Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 11/3/04). Like other alliums, shallots contain fructooligosaccharides, a fiber that helps feed beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines.

Kitchen Notes: As with other members of the Allium family, it is best to slice shallots just before use for maximum and flavor and nutrition. Shallots generally store well for a couple of months when left uncut and in a cool, dry location. Fresh green shallots are available in the spring; they can be refrigerated for up to a week. Shallots are used frequently in French cuisine.

 

SCALLIONS

Research Report: Often called “green onions” or “spring onions,” scallions have edible tops that look like large chives, and bulbs that resemble miniature onions, with a taste that falls somewhere between the two. Containing no cholesterol or fat, scallions are also a good source of calcium, fiber, iron and vitamins A and C.

Kitchen Notes: Unlike some other Allium family members, scallions don’t keep well and should be used within a few days of harvesting or purchasing. While refrigerating scallions in a bag or container in the crisper will help them keep a little longer, your best bet is buying the greenest and freshest-looking bunch and using it as soon as possible.

 

LEEKS

Research Report: Similar in appearance to scallions, leeks are generally bigger than their slender green-leaved cousins and are valued more for their stalks than their white onion-like bases. A good source of iron, calcium, fiber and vitamins A and C, leeks also share scallions’ wonderful fat- and cholesterol-free quality. Leeks also contain diallyl sulfide, a phytonutrient common to many Allium species that has shown the ability to fight both microbes and cancer in lab tests. Chinese medicine practitioners use leeks in the treatment of obesity.

Kitchen Notes: Like scallions, leeks tend to collect dirt within their stalks. Gently moving them around in a bowl of cool water should get them clean and ready to prepare. This plant, despite its sturdy looks, can easily become overcooked, so only minimal exposure to heat is necessary. Leeks are best known as the basis for soup, often in combination with potatoes.

 

CHIVES

Research Report: The tiniest and thinnest members of the Allium clan, chives are one of the world’s most popular herbs. While the bulbs of chives are not generally used, their long tubular green leaves are cherished as a mild but flavorful addition to many dishes. Featuring no fat or cholesterol, chives are rich in vitamins A, C and K.

Kitchen Notes: Remarkably easy to grow in pots or in the garden, chives are highly versatile, even working well as a tasty garnish. Chives can be stored in a bag or container in the crisper for a couple of days, but are ideally used after being cut fresh. Milder in flavor than many of the other alliums, chives keep their bright green color when cooked. They pair well with eggs.

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