Monday, May 23, 2011

Spotlight Food - Onions

This is the first post in a series I’ve been planning, where I’ll pick one food a week to spotlight. Providing you with information detailing that foods history, cultivation, any myths, and it’s healthful benefits along with some of the best ways of preparing said food. I hope you these posts as interesting and beneficial as I do.

Onions - I can’t say definitively that they’re my favorite food, because I’m the type of person who’s favorite food is food, if you know what I mean? I can say however that I absolutely love them, and eat them in some form at least once a day. They are probably the most frequently used food in my kitchen. I buy yellow onions in 10 pounds bags, green onions about 2-3 bunches per week, and 2-4 red onions a week depending on what meals I’ve got planned. White onions, Shallots, Vidalia, and Walla Walla I love also but use less frequently.


Onions (Allium cepa) belong to the Lilly family, as do garlic, and leeks. More then 600 species of Allium have been found distributed across the world, and over 120 different uses of the Alliums have been documented.

The onion has an interesting but somewhat mysterious. Botanists, archeologists, and food historians can’t quite agree on when exactly or where the onion first originated. Various cultures have been eating onions for thousands of years, and because onions grow wild in so many different regions of the world it’s suspected that they were consumed long before farming was invented, and that cultivation took place more or less simultaneously around the world. Most researchers agree however that the onion has been cultivated for roughly 5000 years.

While researchers may argue over whether or not onions first originated in China, India, Iran, Pakistan, or Egypt, the onion can be traced back to many cultures through ancient texts. There are mentions of onions being cultivated in China 5000 years ago, they can be traced to Egypt as far back as the year 3500 B.C. and they’re even mentioned in The Bible, in Numbers 11:5. The onion is also referenced as being used medicinally in India in the sixth century B.C.

The Onion has been held as a symbol, a source of power, and a source of healing by many cultures. The Ancient Egyptians considered it an object of worship believing that it’s round shape and concentrated ring system symbolized eternal life. They painted images of onions in their temples, gave them as funeral offerings, placed them upon the alters of their Gods as offerings, and even buried their Pharaohs with them. Ramses IV, who died in the year 1160 BC was entombed with slices of onions in his eye sockets.

In Ancient Greece, before competitions athletes would eat large quantities of onions, and drink onion juice because they believed it would bring balance and lightness to their blood as well as enhance their physical strength and stamina. Roman gladiators also held the belief that rubbing down their bodies with onion would strengthen their muscles.

During the Middle Ages doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowl movements and erections, as well as to relieve headaches and cough. In this time period onions were also often used as currency.

Christopher Columbus introduced the cultivated onion to North America in 1492, however upon arrival it was discovered that a species of wild onions already grew across North America, and were used frequently in a variety of ways by the Native Americans.

Today Onions are no less important. They remain a staple food of many cultures, particularly in South America, India, Asia, The Mediterranean, The Middle East and Northern Africa, and have become the second most important horticultural crop after the tomato.

Health Benefits

Now despite some of the more outrageous medicinal claims and magical beliefs propagated by our ancient ancestors onions do have some very real health benefits. Said to be able to cure everything from the common cold to cancer the unique properties of the onion have been shown to be beneficial in preventing or alleviating the symptoms of many diseases that we face today.

Onions are full of anti-oxidants, as well as high in flavonoids which are extremely helpful in combating free-radicals which cause the cell damage that can stimulate cancer growth. Yellow onions have been tested and found to have the highest number of flavonoids. Their number being 11 times higher then the variety of onion with the lowest tested flavonoid count. It’s because of this that onions have been reported to have such a positive effect on fighting a variety of ailments from the common cold, cardiovascular health, diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer.

Animal based studies have also shown some evidence that onion’s sulfur compounds may work in an anti-clogging capacity that helps prevent the clumping together of blood platelet cells. The research also suggests that sulfur levels in onions can lower blood cholesterol levels and triglycerides as well as improve cell membrane function in red blood cells.

Research focusing on support for bone and connective tissue health have shown in human studies that onions can help increase bone density and may be especially beneficial for menopausal woman. However to be of use in this are onions must be consumed on a daily basis as research has shown that sporadic consumption of onions does not provide much if any benefit. Also research has suggested that because our connective tissues require sulfur for their formation, onions high sulfur content provides a direct benefit.

Anti-inflammatory research has shown that onions provide important benefits. Onions antioxidants, particularly Quercetin, help prevent the oxidation of fatty acids in our bodies. With lower levels of oxidized fatty acid our bodies will produce fewer inflammatory molecules and our level of inflamation will be kept in check. Onions are also shown to provide benefits as an anti-bacterial.

Then of course there’s the Big C, Cancer. Onions have repeatedly been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers, even when eaten only in moderation. (Moderation being anywhere from 1-5 times per week) Colorectal, Laryngeal, and Ovarian cancers are the three types were risk is reduced by moderate onion consumption. However for esophageal Cancer, and Cancers of the mouth research indicates that daily consumption of onions is required before any significant risk reduction results.

In summation onions appear not only to be a delicious food, but a highly beneficial one as well. However to get the most out of your onion consumption it’s recommended that you eat ½ an onion per day. Less apparently isn’t more when talking about onions, and the more pungent the onion the better it is for you. As onions with a bolder, stronger flavor have more antioxidants and flavonoids then milder onions.

Having said all of that, please keep in mind that wen it comes to preventing disease through food there is no hard and fast rule. There is no absolute, no guarantee. Even if you eat one entire onion per day for the rest of your life, there is no 100% guarantee that you won’t develop say stomach cancer, even though the research shows that those populations consuming the most onions daily have a 40% less risk then populations consuming little to no onion. The problem with a disease like cancer is that it can be greatly agitated by a variety of factors. Our personal choices (food etc..) Environmental factors that are out of our control (Such as pollution) Chemical exposure (From commercial cleaning products) and just pure bad luck in the genetic gene pool. Yet I do believe that we have the ability to heal our bodies through a healthful diet and lifestyle, and even though there isn’t a 100% guarantee my attitude has always been "Just because it’s not 100% fool-proof doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it" I err on the side of common sense here. We know plant foods are the healthiest for our bodies, research indicates that they can be beneficial in disease prevention, and I am the type of person that would rather try something and find out later it had no effect, then be the sort of person who refuses to try something only to find out later it was the thing that could have saved me.
Besides when it comes to onions, eating more of them is hardly an imposition, and upping my intake certainly isn’t going to hurt me. So why not?


Onions can be eaten raw, or cooked. They can be used in anything from dips, sauces, dressings, curries, soups, stir-fries, casseroles, pasta dishes, salads, chilies - you name it and you can basically throw an onion into it. That’s part of why I love them so much, their versatility is endless. Except for desert, perhaps they shouldn’t be tossed into that but virtually everything else. I throw onions into all of the above dishes. I dice yellow onions and eat them raw on tacos, saute them with peppers and eat them on fajitas. Saute them and serve them with dark leafy greens. Green onions go into almost everything I make regardless of wether or not a recipe calls for it. Red onions are great diced and tossed raw into middle eastern style or Mediterranean salads. Don’t be afraid to get creative! However I recommend that if you’re eating onions raw to go a bit easy on them as the flavor can be very bold, and it might be too much for you. Experiment, add a bit, then more to taste, and as always enjoy!

So Happy and Healthy Eating to you! And don’t forget to load up on those onions! Just make sure you brush your teeth after dinner.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff!! Always good to find ways of fighting off the big C. - M