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Garlic is perhaps one of nature’s brightest bulbs. Not only is this aromatic vegetable a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen, but it also encompasses a whole host of health benefits. From reducing blood pressure to improving circulation and immune function, garlic has much more to offer than just flavor. If your kitchen is not readily stocked with this culinary powerhouse already, we’ll give you every reason why it should be.

Jamie Vespa, MS, RD
January 19, 2017

Functional Properties

Garlic is part of a vast family of vegetables called alliums, which also include onions, leeks and scallions. Allium vegetables are high in flavonoids and antioxidants which act as dynamic cell preservers. Most of the health effects of garlic are attributed to one of the sulfur compounds known as allicin, which is also responsible for the distinct garlic smell and taste. Allicin is formed when fresh garlic is crushed and begins degrading almost immediately.

Garlic has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure by promoting vasodilation, or widening of blood vessels. It also may inhibit angiotensin II, a naturally occurring substance in the body that narrows blood vessels and increases blood pressure. Garlic has also been touted as a natural remedy for high LDL cholesterol levels, however there is conflicting clinical evidence to back up this claim at this time.

In addition to cardiovascular benefits, garlic may also play a role in boosting prostate health. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention concluded that allium vegetable intake, specifically garlic, was related to a decreased risk for prostate cancer. Although ongoing research is needed, the cancer-preventative properties of garlic may be ascribed in part to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of garlic, which also play a role in the the immune system. There is evidence that garlic acts as an immune booster by actively strengthening the host immune system with its radical scavenging and antioxidant activity. This immune boost combined with garlic’s antibacterial and antiviral properties has also been shown to help fight the common cold.

Cooking with Garlic

By crushing, mincing, or puréeing garlic, you release its essential oils, which hold the bulk of its potency. Garlic can also be roasted whole, which yields a sweeter, caramelized taste, perfect for bruschetta or salad dressings. When shopping for garlic, choose fresh bulbs over the prepeeled or the prechopped cloves in a jar. Though prepeeled garlic is convenient, the blanching process that removes the skin also dilutes the flavor. In a pinch, look to garlic powder for added flavor. A 2011 study by researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine reported that nine herbs, including garlic, retained their antioxidant capacity and phenolic content during the drying process.

Garlic is extremely versatile and adds a wealth of flavor to cooking. Bring vegetable side dishes or simple soups to life with the addition of minced or toasted garlic. Since garlic is naturally low in both calories and sodium, yet packs a major flavor-punch, it can work wonders in healthy marinades, dressings, and sauces. If you’re feeling extra ambitious and don’t mind the garlic breath (we certainly don’t), try our recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic.

Bottom Line: Garlic adds wonderful aroma and deeply savory flavor to cooking. In addition to its culinary uses, garlic has been widely recognized for its health benefits due in part to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Although garlic is available in supplement form, we recommend reaping the benefits of this superfood in its natural plant state.