Do You Know Your Onions?

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onions Onions have been held in high esteem throughout recorded history and used in nearly every cuisine around the world.  They are one of the oldest known vegetables, probably among the first cultivated crops, and are easy to grow. They do well in a wide range of soils and climates and they are less perishable than many other vegetables, growing wild in many regions of the world.  Food historians estimate that man has been sowing and reaping onions for at least 5,000 years and that our ancestors feasted on wild onions for thousands of years before the invention of farming and writing. 

In ancient times onions were not only eaten but also worshipped, depicted on banquet tables, and offered on the alters of the great gods. To the ancient Egyptians, onions symbolized eternal life (note the onion’s anatomy; it’s circle within a circle structure), were customarily included in funeral offerings, and buried with pharaohs, attached to various body parts perhaps to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife.        

According to the researchers behind Oso Sweet Onions, “Egyptians numbered over 8,000 onion-alleviated ailments.”  Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noted for saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” counted onions as a medicine.              

Esteemed by the Greeks 

First century A.D., physician, Dioscorides, used onions therapeutically.  Greek athletes reportedly put away pounds of onions, downed onion juices, and anointed their flesh with onion liquid prior to competing in the Olympic games.  Romans revered onions, grew them in market gardens, transported them on journeys, depicted them in ancient mosaics dating back to the second century A.D. 

The early Romans believed onions could cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery, even lumbago.  Emperor Nero, an avid onions and leek lover, claimed onions improved his singing voice and male prowess.  Architects have modeled mosques (the Great Mosque of Tamerlane, built in fifteenth century Persia, and the Taj Mahal in India) and monuments (such as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) on the onion bulb. 

Asians have similarly honored onions.  According Dr. Henry C. Lu, author of Chinese Foods for Longevity and Chinese System of Food Cures, onions have been used in China for at least 5,000 years.  In the Middle Ages, onions were one of three main vegetables consumed (along with beans and cabbage) prescribed to alleviate headaches, snake bites, and hair loss.It was also used as a form of monetary exchange as rent payment and weeding gifts!  Since then, onions have been used to treat bee stings, bug bites, and–in World War II Russia–as an antiseptic in battle.  

Mouthwash?

An old wives tale even lists onions as an ideal mouthwash! “Chewing raw onions for five minutes kills all germs in the mouth, making it sterile; a good thing to know next time you get a cold,” says food historian Martin Elkort, author of The Secret Life of Food. What  shall we make of this lore?  Can an onion a day really keep the doctor at bay?   Surprisingly, it may.  Modern research supports a surprising array of ancient allium-related health claims. “According to researchers in the United States and India, onions also kill the germs that cause tooth decay,” reports food historian Martin Elkort.

What’s the secret? 

Onions contain at least 25 identified active disease combating compounds that, like garlic, posses antibacterial, antifungal, and immune enhancing properties— which may explain their efficacy in warding off colds, relieving upset stomach, and other gastrointestinal imbalances.  Onions appear to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, inhibit growth of cancer cells, reduce stroke risk, and aid in preventing heart disease.

According to researchers from the American Heart Association, avid onion eating can prevent coronary thrombosis and hypertension.  Researcher Victor Gurewich, M.D., of Tufts University, says, imbibing the juice of one yellow onion a day may raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol  by as much as 30 percent. (Oddly red onions don’t possess the same potency.)  “One medium sized onion contains only thirty-eight calories and as much vitamin C as two apples, one banana, one tomato, or one orange.  Onions are among one of the 10 most popular vegetables in the country,” adds Elkort.  Prevention Magazine named them one of the 25 superfoods for combating heart disease and cancer.  So, an onion a day….. is a decent way to increase your odds for a healthy, well-rounded existence.           

The onions most assertive compounds appear to be sulfur and quercetin, antioxidants able to neutralize free radicals in the body, protecting cell membranes from damage.  Onions beat red wine and tea in quercetin content. (Yellow onions top red onions in the antioxidant race.)  Unlike wine, onion addiction won’t reduce your reflexes or get you arrested, so you can safely indulge any time and you won’t get pulled over for driving under the influence!

Benefits of cooked onions

Cooking softens the bite, sweetens the pot, multiplies your options, concentrates the volume and nutrients, and allows you to eat more onions in a single sitting.  Cooking does reduce sulfur compounds slightly…. though it leaves the quercetin  intact. 

Onion Trivia

  • Average onion consumption in America:  Almost 18 pounds per person, per year.  (Source:  The Sweet Onion Source)
  • Who allegedly introduced onions to the Americas?  Christopher Columbus.
  • Why we cry:   It’s the sulfur, says Rosemary Moon in Onions, Onions, Onions When cut, onions release an enzyme, alliinase. This acts on something called alliin to produce an organic sulfur compound, which then reacts with moisture in your eyes to produce sulfuric acid making makes your eyes water and sting. 
  • What’s the best keeper?   Pungent onions have a high sulfur content and are the best keepers.  Sweet onions have a short shelf life. (Sylvia Thompson, The Kitchen Garden.)
  • Oh, that onion breath:  To avoid turning off your mate, find a consenting partner who also adores onions, suggests Elkort.  If you both consume the same amount of onions (and garlic), “the unpleasant odors will cancel themselves out.”  Whew!
  • To peel without tears  Try one of the following: 1) wrap and chill onions before chopping; (2) cut away the top, peel the papery outer layer away toward the root, leaving the root intact while chopping; (3) pour boiling water over small onions, leave to soak for 5 minutes, then peel and chop; (4) freeze onions briefly before slicing….. Or, just grin and bear it.  Some folks find that frequent onion use increases the resistance to tears.  You just get used to it.

This article originally appeared in Herb Companion Magazine.

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rachel albert, healthy cooking coachBio: Rachel Albert has been a natural foods chef, cooking instructor, and freelance food and health writer for more than 25 years. She has led more than 1,100 cooking classes and more than 300 of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications. She is co-author of the award-winning book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004) www.TheGardenOfEatingDiet.com and author of The Ice Dream Cookbook: Dairy-Free Ice Cream Alternatives with Gluten Free Cookies, Compotes, and Sauces (Planetary Press, 2008). Rachel leads group and private classes, cooking parties, kitchen and phone coaching sessions, and healthy shopping tours, and speaks to groups in the Phoenix metro area. For great paleo, primal, gluten-free, mostly dairy-free, naturally sweetened recipes, food photos, book and product reviews, and cooking videos, visit and subscribe to her blog: http://www.thehealthycookingcoach.com.



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Alison Golden writes on the topic of paleo over at Paleo/NonPaleo. She aims to share ideas, inspire and motivate readers by teaching them how to live paleo in a non-paleo world. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo, a unique tool that gives the reader hundreds of strategies to navigate the learning process to successful paleo living.

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