The pungent smell is pretty unmistakable. Whether it’s cooked up with some roasted veggies, thrown into pasta sauce for some added punch, or smeared onto fresh French bread, garlic can add amazing character to whatever dish you create.
And, as it turns out, eating it doesn’t just taste amazing, but it also offers a lot of health benefits as well, some of which are intensified when garlic is consumed raw.
The history of garlic
Garlic has been used for thousands of years, and not just to spice up dinner. It has strong medicinal properties that have origins in ancient Egypt. Later on, in the 18th century, French gravediggers drank wine infused with crushed garlic in an effort to ward off the plague. And, during both World Wars, garlic was a preventative measure given to soldiers to fight against gangrene—medics found that applying the plant to wounds would clean the area and stop infection.
Today, garlic makes regular appearances in flavorful dishes and is also known for many heart health capabilities. Consuming garlic can prevent hardening of the arteries (which is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke), high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and can also offer a boost to the immune system in times of need. Additional research indicates that regular consumption of garlic might also help protect against cancer, which may be due to the fact that the plant has plenty of antioxidants that are known to stop free radicals from building up and contributing to chronic diseases that also includes Alzheimer’s disease.
The active compounds in garlic
Garlic has two molecules, alliin and alliinase, which are stored in different cells in fresh garlic. The distinct flavor behind this plant happens when alliin reacts with alliinase, a process that is highly accelerated when cloves are crushed, cut up, or even damaged. After about ten seconds of this physical activity, the two compounds merge to create the phytochemical allicin, a potent antimicrobial and antifungal agent.
Since it’s relatively unstable, though, allicin degrades within a day. Heat will also destroy allicin, so while you might think you’re getting all of the amazing health perks from your garlic when sauteing in a pan, you’re likely losing a lot of them due to the high temperature. In fact, the most beneficial use of garlic is consuming it raw, and within a few minutes of crushing the cloves.
The health benefits of raw garlic
Even when cooked, garlic can still have some benefit on the human body, but when raw it’s quite powerful. It also doesn’t need to be eaten to provide a positive effect; garlic is great in a variety of topical uses as well. Here are just some of the surprising benefits it imparts.
Garlic has antifungal attributes
The antifungal properties of garlic are attributed to allicin. It’s so potent in fact that garlic has been used to treat acne and the overgrowth of Candida yeast in various parts of the body, which can lead to sore throats and yeast infections. Some herbalists also believe that garlic might have the ability to heal dandruff since it has been seen as proactive in fighting Pityrosporum ovale, a fungus that lives on the scalp and plays a role in the development of itchy, flaky skin.
Garlic has antioxidant power
Allicin has also been deemed as one of the most potent sources of antioxidants in food. As the body breathes in oxygen, anything that interacts with the molecule can become oxidized and turn into free radicals that wind up damaging cells. However, eating a lot of plant-based foods with natural antioxidants can prevent this phenomenon from happening.
Antioxidants are known for fighting free radicals, and in turn, can help to prevent a number of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, eye disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, even certain types of cancer.
Garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties
Ever since garlic was used in World War I and II to disinfect and heal wounds, several studies have confirmed its potent antibacterial and antiviral effects. It’s so powerful, in fact, that garlic supplements have been used successfully against strep throat, staph infections, and even anthrax bacteria. Although more research is currently underway, garlic seems to be especially effective in treating difficult infections where the body may have become resistant to certain drugs and antibiotics.
Because of these rich antibacterial properties, garlic has been seen has having the ability to block the formation and stop the activation of cancer-causing substances. Research has also shown that raw garlic can enhance DNA repair and induce the death of cells that are deemed as unneeded or abnormal. This facet alone speaks greatly of the power of this incredible plant.
Tips for selecting and storing garlic
Obviously, since you’ll want to take advantage of the benefits of raw garlic, you should always purchase bulbs fresh. Though garlic flakes, powders, and pastes are convenient and just as tasty, they don’t often impart the same health effect.
The main thing to look for is garlic that is undamaged. You’ll want to find bulbs that are plump and don’t have any broken outer skin. When holding the garlic, it should feel weighty; and when gently squeezing the bulb between your fingers, it should appear firm—not mushy or damp. Soft and shriveled garlic bulbs will not provide the same potent power as a fresh bulb, so you should heed any that have mold or have started to sprout (indicating the plant is older and near the end of its lifespan).
With good storage, a solid, well-wrapped garlic bulb can stay fresh for a month, or even longer. To keep the garlic as fresh as possible for as long as possible, store in a cool place (60-65 degrees Fahrenheit) that’s away from direct heat and sunlight. A little bit of humidity and air circulation is fine, but once you’ve broken the head of the garlic, know that the shelf life lasts for just a few days.
Eating more raw garlic
If you want to try garlic for medicinal purposes (especially topical concerns), first consult with a doctor. The plant is also a tasty ingredient beyond its health benefits. There’s no real limit to how much you can consume (though you might want to have some mints or gum on hand for afterward); but if you want to soften the smell and taste you can add some fennel seeds to counteract it and use these helpful tricks to rid the scent from your hands and clothing. When you’re ready to cook, here are some of Thrive Market’s favorite ways to incorporate garlic into a number of dishes.
This classic side dish is sure to be a crowd pleaser at the holidays or any day; even better, this recipe forgoes the loads of dairy that can weigh you down and feeling bloated. Instead, these perfectly whipped potatoes have a creamy texture from hearty olive oil that adds a good amount of healthy fats. To enhance the power and flavor of the garlic, hold off on adding it until the very end. Once the mashed potatoes have cooled a bit, stir in the garlic or sprinkle on top to taste.
Bored with marinara sauce? Switch it out for this light yet savory kale-hemp pesto that goes great on just about anything, from pasta to roasted vegetables. It’s bright and beautifully green, and only takes five minutes to prep, using nutrient-rich hemp seeds and curly kale, sea salt, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. (If you want to make the dish vegan, you can also sub in nutritional yeast instead of cheese). Chop up raw garlic, let it sit for a few minutes to get the allicin going, and then mix all ingredients together and pour over a bowl of cooked pasta noodles.
The rich profile of raw garlic goes well with the intense flavors of fresh kale and smoky bacon in this dairy-free take on the classic Caesar salad (made with nutritional yeast to mimic the flavors of Parmesan cheese). To prep this dish, you’ll first want to massage the kale with a little bit of olive oil and salt, making the leaves more tender and easier to eat raw. Sprinkle a little bit of garlic on top to serve, providing a dish that’s perfect for lunch or hearty enough for dinner.
A delicious recipe for roasted chicken is something every home cook needs; here’s one that’s easy to master by infusing the meat with fresh lemons, rosemary, thyme, and whole garlic. The addition of chicken stock and some surprise white wine also keeps it from becoming too dry while cooking. Serve with the mashed potatoes or Caesar salad above for a complete meal everyone can enjoy.
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Photo credit: Alicia Cho