Guarding Your Health With Garlic

The word garlic comes from Old English garleac, meaning “spear leek.” Garlic (Allium sativum), shares the Allium genus with chivesscallions, leeks, onions, shallots, elephant garlic, and rakkyo.  All of these species, belong, in turn, to the Amaryllidaceae family, which includes many ornamentals, such as the belladonna lily, tuberose, snowdrop, snowflake, daffodil, Cape tulip, Peruvian lily, and amaryllis.

Garlic is native to central Asia, which is also home to Allium longicuspis. Some believe this plant to be a wild ancestor while others believe it to be the same species. Garlic was probably used in Central Asia since Neolithic times (for over 7,000 years) as a food flavoring and seasoning.

As a food and medicinal plant, garlic spread in ancient times to the Mediterranean region and beyond. It was used in Egypt by 3000 BC. Garlic was part of the daily diet, particularly for the working class involved in heavy labor, as it was presumed to maintain and increase strength and productivity. The authoritative medical text of 1500 BC, the Codex Ebers, prescribed garlic for the treatment of abnormal growths, circulatory ailments, general malaise, and infestations with insects and parasites. The Book of Numbers (11:15) mentions that after the Israelites left Egypt (around 1446 BC), garlic was one of the foods they greatly missed, along with leeksmelons, onions, and cucumbers. Well-preserved garlic cloves were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen who ruled from 1334 BC to 1325 BC.

Ancient Greek soldiers were fed garlic to provide them with more courage, and garlic was part of the military’s daily diet. During the first Olympic Games around 776 BC, garlic was taken by athletes before they competed, presumably to enhance performance. Garlic was used to protect the skin against poisons or toxins. By 500 BC, garlic was a common peasant food in Greece, along with cabbageonions, fava beans, and peas. Hippocrates (460 BC–377 BC), the “Father of Medicine,” used garlic as part of his medicine chest, advocating its use for breathing complaints, as a cleansing or purgative agent, and for abdominal growths.

Ancient Greeks and Romans claimed that garlic was used to repel scorpions, treat bladder infections and dog bites, and cure leprosy and asthma.  It was thought that hanging garlic bulbs on doors would stop the spread of smallpox.

Garlic was probably introduced into Japan from Korea along with Buddhism in about 30 B.C.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman naturalist who wrote Historica Naturalis (a medical reference book), in which twenty-three uses of garlic were listed for a variety of disorders, including protection against toxins, infections, and liver diseases. Later, garlic was used for respiratory ailments and for parasites. Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40—90 AD) was a Greek who served in Rome as the chief physician of Nero’s Army. Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances (a pharmacopeia), that was widely read for more than 1,500 years. He recommended garlic to “clean the arteries,” treat intestinal worms, gastrointestinal tract disorders, animal bites, joint disease, and seizures.

The Talmud, a Jewish religious text dating from the 2nd century AD, prescribes garlic for the treatment of infection with parasites and other disorders.

Garlic was also known by the advanced ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, in what today is Pakistan and western India. The ancient Indians valued the medicinal properties of garlic and thought it to be an aphrodisiac. It was not considered to be suitable food for the upper classes who didn’t care for its strong odor. It was also forbidden by monks who believed it to be a stimulant which aroused passions. Widows, adolescents and those who had taken up a vow or were fasting could not eat garlic because of its stimulant quality. Garlic appears in the Sanskrit medical treatise, the Charaka Samhita dating from around the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. Its medicinal properties were also described in the Navanitaka text written in the 4th century AD by Buddhists. It was believed to cure several illnesses and promote a long life. Garlic also has a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. It was thought to possess five of the six rasas or tastes defined in the Ayurvedic system, only missing the sour taste. This gave it its Sanskrit name, lasuna (or rasuna).

Although highly regarded as a medicine, garlic was avoided as food. The Buddhists and Jains avoided eating it as did high-born Hindus and Brahmins. The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang visited India in the 7th century AD, and stated that the food use of garlic was unknown, which would have been particularly true of the Buddhist circles in which he moved. This attitude changed with the centuries and by the period of Muslim rule. Garlic was and continues to be, an indispensable flavors in cuisines of South Asia.

During the European middle ages, garlic was believed to alleviate constipation when consumed with beverages. Workers outdoors were advised to consume garlic to prevent heat strokes. The 800-year-old medical school of Salerno taught students to use garlic as medicine. Garlic was used as a treatment for the great plagues. European folklore held that garlic repelled vampires, protected against the Evil Eye, and warded off jealous nymphs said to terrorize pregnant women and engaged maidens.

From India, garlic spread to China, where it was used as a food preservative and formed part of the daily diet. Garlic was prescribed to aid respiration, digestion, diarrhea, worm infestation, depression, and impotence.

During the European Renaissance, garlic was one of the major plants grown in the “physic” gardens in leading universities for medical research. A leading physician of the 16th century, Dr. Pietro Mattioli of Siena, prescribed garlic for digestive disorders, kidney stones, and for women in childbirth. The English included garlic in their medicine chests, and it was used for toothache, constipation, dropsy, and plague.

The Spanish, Portuguese, and French explorers introduced garlic to the New World.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654), a physician-astrologer who fought in the English Civil War, listed garlic as “an herb of Mars”:

This was anciently accounted the poor man’s treacle, it being a remedy for all diseases and hurts….it provokes urines and womens’ courses, helps the biting of mad dogs and other venomous creatures; kills the worms in children, cuts and voids tough phlegm, purges the head, helps the lethargy, is a good preservative against and a remedy for any plague, sore or foul ulcer; takes away spots and blemishes in the skin, eases pains in the ears, ripens and breaks imposthumes, or other swellings…

Native Americans used garlic in a tea to treat flu-like symptoms. In 1825, garlic was used in Shaker herb catalogs as a stimulant, expectorant, and tonic. In 1878, Dr. John Gunn recommended garlic in the book Home: Book of Health as a diuretic, expectorant, and treatment for worms.

Until the first quarter of the twentieth century in the United States, garlic was used almost exclusively in ethnic dishes in working-class neighborhoods. Diner slang of the 1920’s referred to garlic as Bronx vanilla, halitosis, and Italian perfume. But by 1940, many Americans began to enjoy garlic, not only a minor seasoning, but as a major ingredient in recipes. During World War II, garlic was used as an antiseptic to disinfect open wounds and prevent gangrene.

A few of the kinds of garlic now in America came in with Polish, German and Italian immigrants over the centuries, but most of them came in all at once in 1989. The USDA had been asking the Soviets for permission to go to the Caucasus region to collect garlic, but permission had always been refused because of the many missile bases and the spaceport in the area. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1989, the Soviets suddenly invited the Americans in to collect the garlic specimens. They were under continuous armed guard and were allowed to travel only at night so they wouldn’t see anything of military importance. They went from village to village along the old Silk Road buying garlic from local markets and naming the cultivars after the town or village where they were purchased. When they got back to the US, they had no gardens ready in which to plant the garlic, so they contracted out the growing to a few private growers. After the crop was harvested and the USDA got their share, these growers began to trade with each other and to sell some to friends and other garlic growers.

Today, garlic is grown in temperate and tropical regions all over the world, and many different cultivated types have been developed to suit different climates. Americans alone consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually.

Garlic can:

  1. Fight cancer. Garlic contains high levels of manganese and vitamin C, both of which help fight free radicals, compounds that can damage cells and lead to cancer. People who ate raw garlic at least twice a week had a 44% lower risk of developing lung cancer. Organo-sulfur compounds found in garlic are effective in destroying the cells in glioblastomas, a type of deadly brain tumor. Garlic intake is related to a decreased risk of prostate cancer. People in China with the highest level of garlic in their diets have a reduced risk of stomach cancer. Saponins in garlic prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating and neutralize free radicals to prevent disease. Allyl sulfides in garlic help reduce the risk of cancer by reducing the production of certain enzymes that convert cancer-causing precursors into their active form. Oxalic acid in garlic is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells.
  2. Promote healthy bones and joints. Manganese in garlic facilitates formation of bone. Women whose diets were rich in fruits and vegetables, “particularly alliums such as garlic,” have fewer signs of early osteoarthritis in the hip joint. Saponins in garlic protect against bone loss.
  3. Fight infections. Garlic is an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps support your immune system and may help reduce the severity of cold symptoms. Garlic may also decrease the frequency of colds in adults. Diallyl sulfide, a compound in garlic, was 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics in fighting the Campylobacter bacterium, one of the most common causes of intestinal infections. Saponins in garlic stimulate your immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, and fight bacterial and fungal infections. Allicin is a sulphur-containing compound that is formed when garlic is crushed, chopped, or chewed, breaking the cells, and mixing their thio-sulfinite antioxidants, such as diallyl disulfide, diallyl trisulfide, allyl propyl disulfide, and alliin with the enzyme, alliinase. Allicin can inhibit bacterial, viral, and fungal infections in your digestive tract, including Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria responsible for gastric ulcers that increases your risk for stomach cancer. In fact, it is known to kill 23 types of bacteria, including salmonella and staphylococcus. Garlic is also known to kill 60 types of fungi and yeast, such as athlete’s foot and vaginitis. A clove of garlic inserted into the entrance of the vagina is a folk remedy for a yeast infection.
  4. Protect your heart and blood vessels. Garlic is high in vitamin B6, which helps prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine in your blood may be associated with atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries) as well as an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clot formation, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Diallyl disulfide is preserved when garlic is heated.  This compound can prevent arteries from clogging, and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Garlic has a blood-thinning quality, which may be helpful in preventing heart attacks and strokes. Diallyl trisulfide, a component of garlic oil, helps protect your heart during cardiac surgery and after a heart attack, and could be used as a treatment for heart failure. Garlic oil may also help protect diabetes patients from cardiomyopathy, a chronic disease of the myocardium (heart muscle), which is abnormally thickened, enlarged, or stiffened, and is the leading cause of death among diabetes patients. Garlic extract supplements reduced high cholesterol levels, and also blood pressure in patients with hypertension. Saponins in garlic lower blood cholesterol, decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduce inflammation. Allicin can reduce cholesterol production by inhibiting the HMG-CoA reductase enzyme in your liver cells. It can reduce blood pressure by decreasing blood vessel stiffness by releasing a vasodilator compound, nitric oxide (NO). Allicin can also block platelet clot formation and provide fibrinolytic (clot-removal) action in your blood vessels, which helps decrease your overall risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), peripheral vascular diseases (PVD), and stroke.
  5. Boost your mood. Garlic boosts your mood by increasing blood flow around your body. The more blood flow, the less energy your heart will have to expend pumping, hence more energy. Garlic is a top source of chromium, which influences the regulation of serotonin, your brain’s so-called happiness chemical. Garlic is actually used as a treatment against depression.
  6. Eliminate toxins. Allyl sulfides from garlic transform toxins into a chemical form that can be metabolized, then attach the toxins to water-soluble substances to increase their solubility. Garlic stimulates bile flow. Bile is a major carrier of toxins from your body, so proper bile flow is a critical final step in the metabolic detoxification process.
  7. Protect your liver. Diallyl disulfide (DADS), a garlic-derived organosulfur compound, might have protective effects against ethanol-induced oxidative stress and may help protect against ethanol-induced liver injury.
  8. Promote digestive health. Garlic contains inulin and oligofructose. Oligofructose is a fructooligosaccharide, which refers to a short chain of fructose molecules. Inulins are a group of polysaccharides, which means a long chain of sugar molecules. Since these prebiotics are composed of sugars, they are carbohydrates, and since they are indigestible and able to be dissolved in water,  they are soluble fibers. They help prevent constipation, promote enzyme activity, and improve the pH levels in your colon. In addition, inulin promotes Lactobacillus acidophilus to produce butyrate, a beneficial short-chain fatty acid that helps inhibit inflammation in your intestinal tract.
  9. Prevent premature deliveryIntake of food with antimicrobial and prebiotic compounds may reduce the risk of spontaneous preterm delivery (PTD). In particular, garlic was associated with overall lower risk of spontaneous PTD.

Nutrients in 3 Cloves Raw Garlic (9 grams)



Daily Value


0.2 mg


vitamin B6

0.1 mg


vitamin C

2.8 mg



16.3 mg



1.3 µg



36.1 mg



13.8 mg






3 g



2.2 mg



0.6 g



0.2 mg



0.2 g



0.1 mg


pantothenic acid

0.1 mg



0.027 mg



0.018 mg



0.01 mg



0.1 mg


vitamin K

0.2 µg



0.3 µg



1.5 mg



0.04 g


vitamin E

0.01 mg


vitamin A

0.8 IU



0 mg



1.4 µg


0.5 µg

Fresh, dried and powdered garlic are available in markets throughout the year; however, fresh varieties from California are in season from June through December. For maximum flavor and nutritional benefits, always purchase fresh garlic.

Purchase garlic that is plump and has unbroken skin. Gently squeeze the garlic bulb between your fingers to check that it feels firm and is not damp. Avoid garlic that is soft, shriveled, and moldy or that has begun to sprout. These may be indications of decay that will cause inferior flavor and texture. Size is often not an indication of quality. If your recipe calls for a large amount of garlic, remember that it is always easier to peel and chop a few larger cloves than many smaller ones.

Store fresh garlic in either an uncovered or a loosely covered container in a cool, dark place away from exposure to heat and sunlight. This will help maintain its maximum freshness and help prevent sprouting, which reduces its flavor. It is not necessary to refrigerate garlic.

Depending upon its age and variety, whole garlic bulbs will keep fresh for about a month if stored properly. Inspect the bulb frequently and remove any cloves that appear to be dried out or moldy. Once you break the head of garlic, it greatly reduces its shelf life to just a few days.

The first step to using garlic is to separate the individual cloves. An easy way to do this is to place the bulb on a cutting board or hard surface and gently, but firmly, apply pressure with the palm of your hand at an angle. This will cause the layers of skin that hold the bulb together to separate. Separate the skin from the individual cloves by placing a clove with the smooth side down on a cutting board. Cut off the root end, then gently tap the clove with the flat side of a wide knife. You can then remove the skin with your fingers. If there is a green sprout in the clove’s center, you can gently remove it.

Blenders and food processors are great for mixing garlic, especially if you are going to use them for adding more ingredients later, as in hummus or stir-fry. You can also mince garlic with a chef’s knife. Using a rocking motion, place the sharp end of the blade on the clove and begin dicing. Mince or dice very finely to release the most flavor and health-promoting phytochemicals. You can also use a garlic crusher to crush the garlic.

Chopping or crushing releases the enzyme, alliinase, which converts the thio-sulfinite antioxidant  phytochemicals, such as diallyl disulfide, diallyl trisulfide, allyl propyl disulfide, and alliin into allicin, a compound to which many of garlic’s health benefits are attributed. Heat and acid deactivate alliinase. In order to allow for maximal allicin production, wait at least 5 minutes, and preferably 10 minutes, after chopping or crushing garlic before eating it, cooking it, or adding it to any ingredients with a pH below 3.5, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Tomatoes, fortunately, are not acidic enough to destroy the alliinase.

Use raw chopped or crushed garlic as much as possible. For cooked dishes, let chopped garlic rest for 10 minutes, and add it during the last 5-15 minutes of cooking time to retain maximum flavor and nutrition.

Use fresh, raw, minced garlic that has rested for 10 minutes in hummus and salad dressings. Add fresh, raw, minced garlic that has rested for 10 minutes during the last 5 minutes of cooking soups, stews, sauces, and gravies.

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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