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Aromatic garlic, ginger show potent health benefits

by Doris Penner

It’s astounding what a difference the addition of an herb can make to a dish, raising it from merely so-so to sublime. Take garlic and ginger, for example, both of which grow under the ground—garlic as a bulb with numerous small cloves and ginger as a rather ugly-looking rhizome; both have a powerfully pungent aroma and taste. Both are native to Asia where, since ancient times, they have been prized for culinary and medicinal properties. Today garlic and ginger are widely used in the western world to impart flavour to foods, and are also known to a lesser or greater degree as possessing health benefits. It is interesting to note that it is particularly one compound in each that is responsible for the effect on human health—and for the distinct flavour and odour. How powerful are these compounds and should we be pursuing them for better health in addition to using them to enliven our food?

In garlic, we are interested in a variety of sulphur-containing compounds such as allicin, alliin and dithiins which are responsible for the herb’s status as a health-supporting food, as well as for its pungent odour which is the reason the herb is sometimes affectionately called “the stinking rose.” Onions and leeks are less powerful cousins.

Cardiovascular properties

Studies using various forms of garlic—powder, oil, aged extract or whole clove—have shown the herb to have properties related to cardiovascular health due to a unique set of sulphur-containing compounds. Several benefits are blood cell and blood vessel protection from inflammatory and oxidative stress, which means less plaque build-up on vessel walls, reducing the number of clots and keeping blood pressure in check, reducing risk of heart attack and atherosclerosis.

It should be noted that garlic contains a number of vitamins and minerals such as vitamins C and B6, manganese and selenium, but is not a good source of these nutrients because it is unrealistic that an individual will eat upwards of 20 cloves of garlic a day to get an appreciable amount of vitamin C, for example. However, the vitamins and minerals work as cofactors with sulphur compounds to protect the cardiovascular system.

Certainly the potent compounds in garlic appear to have further health benefits such as controlling infection by bacteria, viruses and various microbes and cancer prevention, but more research is needed to nail this down. However, including fresh cloves of garlic often in your diet—perhaps not in snack form but in your stirfrys and meat dishes is a good idea. Aim for at least half a clove per person for optimum effect, and add near the end of cooking to mitigate loss of nutrients by heat. Garlic can also be ingested in powdered, paste or tablet form but the health benefits will be lessened compared to fresh cloves. Since garlic is listed as a food frequently containing pesticide residues, you might wish to look for the organically-grown product.

Soothes the intestinal tract

Ginger has a long history of use in alleviating symptoms of gastrointestinal stress and studies have proved that the herb may, indeed, have that effect. Ginger appears to relax and soothe the intestinal tract which promotes the elimination of gas (relieving bloating), mitigates motion sickness and reduces nausea and vomiting (also during pregnancy).

In addition, the herb contains anti-inflammatory properties which explains why people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis experience pain reduction and improvements in mobility when they consume ginger regularly. While it is unclear exactly what substance in ginger is responsible for its positive role in gastrointestinal health, it is clear that active ingredients called gingerols have beneficial effects on free radical protection which explains the anti-inflammatory effectiveness. Gingerol also has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the colon and ovaries, but again more studies need to be done to confirm preliminary findings.

Gingerols, of course, are also responsible for the distinctive flavour of gingerroot which can be purchased in most supermarkets. Look for firm smooth roots and store in the refrigerator for up to three weeks (peel just before using). Add to rice dishes, salad dressings, pureed sweet potatoes or chicken stuffing. The fresh root makes a delicious tea: shave slices into a mug or teapot and pour on boiling water. Allow to steep for a few minutes, then enjoy plain or with honey and lemon.

Ginger capsules are also available, and of course powdered ginger is common as a spice.