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By Tammera J. Karr, PhD, CNC, BCIH, CNW, CNH
With fall fast approaching my thoughts turn to those warm and savory foods like onions. The thickness of the onion skin has been used to predict how severe the next winter may be, thin skins mean a mild winter and thick skins indicate a rough winter ahead. Onions along with garlic, chives, shallots, leeks, green onions (scallions) are in the Amaryllis family-often incorrectly referred to as the Lily family. There are two basic types; the bulb-forming favorites like Walla Walla, Vidalia and Spanish red onions and the perennials that produce clusters of onions that can be replanted. Cluster onions include shallots, Egyptian onions and garlic. This family is cultivated worldwide and has been in use for health care as well as culinary for a millennium.
Onions originated in Central Asia, from Iran to Pakistan and northward to the Slavic countries. Onion gardens have been excavated dating back 5,000 years; Pharaohs were buried with onions as a sign of eternity. Documents dating back to the sixth century show onions being used medicinally in India. The Romans believed that onions could cure them of whatever ailed them. Even though the onion itself was not spicy enough for the Greeks and Romans they were heavily used for their pungency and their availability to the poorer populations throughout the world. Christopher Columbus and other explorers have brought onions to the Americas. The three main vegetables of European cuisine from the middle ages to present are beans, cabbage and onions. Onions have been used as currency and given as wedding gifts.
Wild onions have been growing in North America since well before the pilgrims’ arrival. The Native Americans used wild onions for cooking, seasoning in syrups and for dyes. Official onion cultivation began in America in 1629 and is now one of the top ten vegetable crops grown in the United States. The world’s leading producers of onions are China, India, the United States, Turkey, and Pakistan. In the United States, Idaho, Oregon Washington, California and Texas are the largest producers.
Vitamin C, fiber, biotin, folate, chromium, vitamin K, and thiamin are found in members of the onion family along with potent anti-cancer phytochemicals like quercetin, phenolic acid, sterols, pectin, volatile-oils, sulfur compounds and the enzyme alliinase. It is the enzyme release and it’s conversion to trans-S-cystine that stimulates crying by the cook.
While not as highly valued as a medicinal as garlic, onions have been widely used because they possess the same properties. Like garlic, studies have shown onion extracts decrease blood sugar and, lipid levels, prevent clots, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation (onions are one of the only foods that contain prostaglandin E1), improve asthma and allergies and retard viruses by improving the immune system. The blood sugar lowering effects of onions have been clinically found to be comparable to that of prescription drugs tolbutamide and phenformin, commonly given to type 2 diabetics. Onions have been found to help the liver process glucose more efficiently by increasing the life span of insulin and increasing the natural secretion of insulin.
Historically, onions have been used in the treatment of asthma due to its ability to inhibit the production of compounds that cause bronchial spasms and mucus production. Onion extracts have been found to inhibit the formation of tumor cells and shallots exhibit significant activity against leukemia.
Cancer of the lung, breast, ovarian, kidney, prostate, skin, mouth, esophageal, stomach, colon, and liver.
Diabetes, hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance.
Heart Health: lower cholesterol, reduces risk of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.
Bone health: increases bone density and possibly decreases the risk of osteoporosis.
Onions are available in fresh, frozen, canned and dehydrated forms; my preference is fresh as this form will have the most nutritional benefit. Store your onions in a cool (55 degrees), dry location; this will help them retain their vitamin C content for as long as six months.
Onions are prone to contamination by aflatoxin produced from aspergillus parasiticus if incorrectly stored. Onions are often subjected to food irradiation in order to inhibit their sprouting potential – food irradiation has various toxic effects. Onions may cause food allergies and trigger migraines in some people.
No matter how you fix them, the onion family is just plain good for you and a food that your cells will know what to do with.
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