Missives from a Market Farmer: Alliums and Health

Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor

I no longer believe that food is food, and that we can ignore the details of what we eat as long as we do not eat too much, have 5 servings of vegetables/fruit a day, and consume enough protein. My recent research on ancient beliefs concerning food and health and new scientific studies on the chemistry of nutrients in food tells me details matter.

The notion of certain foods having medicinal qualities is ancient. A 2015 article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology entitled “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances” addressed the distinctions between food and medicine in a body of writings called the Hippocratic Corpus (HC), a multi-author work compiled from 500 BC to 400 B. In that time, many medicines were purgatives. Called “pharmakon” they were astringent, bitter, and foul smelling and could not be concocted by the body. Concoct roughly means to digest but includes idea of providing nourishment and supporting growth. “Trophe” was the name for nourishing substances.

Garlic was a major component of the Greek diet, however, it was also considered to have medicinal properties. It was mainly used to promote robustness after other treatments. Women who were treated for displacement of the womb with purgatives, fumigations, and manipulations were encouraged eat both raw and cooked garlic and sip a garlic broth.

Interestingly, at this time (2500 years ago) Greek physicians embraced “dietetics,” a holistic branch of medicine focusing on the interaction between diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

By the Middle-Ages, onions were prescribed as a cure for headaches, snakebites, and hair loss. The majority of the vegetable diet then consisted of beans, cabbages (this would have included greens such as kales), and onions. Knowing how onions enhance bean and green dishes, I was not surprised to learn onions were used to pay rent and as wedding gifts.

By the late Middle-Ages (13th century) herbals (the medical text books of the day) were recommending garlic, onions, and leeks—all alliums—for the elderly and to cure coughs, to kill worms, improve the flow of mother’s milk and semen, and to soften the bladder. Onions were thought to improve eyesight, but garlic was said to have the potential for damaging the eyes and brain. I especially liked the recommendation for constriction of the chest which was to use onions baked under embers served with sugar and butter, which sounds just like a delicious concoction of caramelized onions.

In the late 20th century, modern scientific research discovered and “inverse correlation between garlic consumption and progression of cardiovascular disease,” meaning it is good for your heart. Even though this discovery was made very recently via epidemiologic and clinical studies, garlic extracts are now marketed as a “traditional medicine” to reduce hypertension and high cholesterol. Such a use does not appear in ancient texts!

Ancient recommendations on food and health were based on observation. The ability to research the mode of action of chemicals in food is very recent. The molecular nature of matter was only identified in the 19th century, knowledge that has been known for less than 1-percent of our existences as humans. Not knowing about the chemistry of food resulted in the ancients making some colossal errors. They believed women had a tube in their bodies leading from the vagina to the mouth. Thus, a test of fertility for a woman consisted of “applying a washed and peeled head of garlic to the womb, and determining the next day” if it could be smelled in her breath. If so, she was fertile. We now know the bad-breath comes from an Allium’s sulfide compounds coursing through our blood, making us stink a little, but also protecting our cardiovascular system.

But don’t discount ancient knowledge. We are re-discovering the value of the ancient theory of “dietetics” as we examine the consequences of our modern sedentary life and processed food diet.