Garlic keeps vampires, cholesterol at bay


January 18, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Contributing Writer

Is garlic a health food?

Researchers are toying with clues that garlic may indeed offer health benefits beyond its ability to tempt us into eating really delicious food.

A review of evidence from five clinical trials published recently in Environmental Nutrition newsletter showed that one-half to one clove per day lowered blood cholesterol levels by an average of 9 percent in people with borderline and high cholesterol.

In various studies, garlic powder, aged garlic extracts and fresh garlic have all been known to have some effect in preventing cancer in animals. In other studies, garlic improves diabetes management, inhibited growth of human cytomegalo- virus (often seen in people with AIDS), prevented fatigue and relieved stress 60 percent as well as Valium.

All this work is preliminary, of course. Much comes from animals studies which have not yet been repeated in humans. There is no consensus as to what quantities might be effective. (Some say as much as 10 cloves a day!)

And studies don't agree on which elements from garlic actually do the work. Some appear to be the very elements that give garlic its "fragrance" and biting taste in the raw state. Furthermore, debate ensues over the effect of cooking, which may diminish or destroy garlic's anti-disease properties.

But let's be realistic, here. We don't want to turn this into the "oatbran" of the '90s. Whatever good properties it has are not magic. A little garlic every now and then is hardly a match for a diet lacking fruits and vegetables or swimming in fat. If garlic is indeed disease preventive, it will still need all the help it can get from an overall healthy diet.

You can buy garlic raw, then slice, dice, chop or press it yourself. Just pull the cloves off the bulb one-by-one, then remove the papery "wrapper." Add fresh garlic to salads, soups or stews, or anything you saute, steam or stir-fry. Sprinkle chopped garlic on chicken or lean beef before broiling. Spread chopped garlic on lightly oiled or buttered bread, then broil.

You can also buy garlic chopped and packed in oil in jars. For a quick -- of flavor, you can resort to garlic powder. (Garlic salt is mostly salt, and very expensive salt at that.)

Trendy garlic bakers have popped up in kitchenware stores just in time to create a heart healthy, nonfat spread for bread. Just trim the papery top off a whole garlic bulb so the cloves show. Place in the baker, then drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil. Cover, then bake 45 to 60 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 45 minutes until the cloves are soft and golden yellow. Cool. Pluck cloves from the bulb. Squeeze bottom of clove so cooked and spreadable garlic rises from the paper. Spread on pizza shells or bread, add to salad dressings or use in any recipe that calls for garlic paste.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates.

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