Onions have a long history as a food staple and natural medicine, used for millenniums around the world. They are robust in taste and smell, and are often used daily as the first ingredient in meals, from stir fries and curries to soups and salads. There are countless ways to cook and eat onions, and contained within the teary layered ground vegetable, there is are potent juices and oils that hold some very powerful health benefits.
A Brief History Of Onions
Onions are vegetables that grow underground as bulbs at the base of plants called Allium cepa. They are grown worldwide and are related to garlic, chives, shallots, leeks and spring onions (scallions). Onions are made up of layers underneath the peel and vary in size, color and shape, with the most common being white, brown and red. Smaller onions come in a number of different types, including chives, leeks and shallots. Scallions or spring onions include a small white bulb and green tops, and are actually just very young onions, harvested before the bulb has swelled. The taste and aroma of onions can vary as well, from mild to sweet and sharp to pungent, depending on the variety, season and quality. Stronger smelling onions are the ones that cause more tears! They have a reputation for making you cry and making your breath stink.
Onions have a long and fascinating history around the world, used as a preventative medicine during epidemics, including the plague in Europe, and as a cure for colds by the Roman emperor Nero. Onions have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, according to research. They grew wild in many different countries, and were therefore most likely consumed for thousands of years all over the world before major international trade became commonplace. Onions may, in fact, be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable, easier to grow in different soils and climates, and more transportable than many other foods at the time.
These underground vegetables were grown in Chinese gardens as far back as 5,000 years ago, and are referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings in India. They can be traced back to 3,500 B.C. in Egypt, where they were considered an object of worship. Onions symbolized eternity, and were buried alongside Pharaohs. The representation came from the round shape and layers of the onion, seen as a ‘circle-within-a-circle’ structure.
Nutritional Information (1 medium raw onion/110g)
Onions are made up of a number of important and essential nutrients, including natural sugar, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Raw, they are made up of 89% water, 9% carbohydrates, 1.7% fiber, with minuscule amounts of protein and fat.
Calories – 44
Total Fat – 0g
Cholesterol – 0mg
Sodium – 4mg
Total Carbohydrates – 10g
Dietary Fiber – 2g
Sugar – 5g
Protein – 1g
Vitamin C – 14% of RDI
Iron – 1% of RDI
Calcium – 3% of RDI
Vitamin B6 – 7% of RDI
Folate – 5% of RDI
Manganese – 7% of RDI
Potassium – 5% of RDI
Raw vs Cooked Onions
There is quite a difference between raw and cooked onions, with the nutrients being far more active in its raw state. That’s because it contains a variety of organic sulfur compounds in a volatile oil, which provide certain health benefits. They are partly destroyed when heated. However, onion juice can be difficult to digest for some people, and can cause irritation in others. If that’s the case, there are ways to cook onions, causing the least damage to its powerful sulfur and oil. For example, oven baked in their skins, like baked potatoes, creates a milder flavor and becomes easier to digest while preserving many nutrients. While onions are extremely healthy when eaten raw, you probably don’t want to follow the former prime minister of Australia’s lead, when he took everyone by surprise, biting into a raw, unpeeled onion in Tasmania. Maybe go for chopped in a salad!
Health Benefits Of Onions
Onions have long been considered healthy, medicinal vegetables around the world, and over the years, a number of studies have proven certain health benefits…
1. Onions May Boost Your Immune System
The polyphenols in onions act as antioxidants in the body, which protects it against free radicals. That, in turn, helps boost and strengthen the immune system. Onions have a higher concentration of selenium than other vegetables. According to research, this trace mineral helps reduce inflammation and stimulates immune function. Immune cells that have a selenium deficiency tend to endure more oxidation, which can cause them to develop and reproduce inefficiently. The quercetin in onions has also been found to be beneficial to the immune system – this time in relation to allergies. According to a study from the University of Maryland Medical Center, quercetin may reduce allergic reactions by stopping the body from producing histamines, which cause sneezing, crying and itching during a bout of allergies.
2. Onions Have An Anti-Inflammatory Effect
There have been several studies into the anti-inflammatory properties of onions, with researchers finding the vegetable’s sulfur content and quercetin to have significant benefits. Onions have strong antioxidant properties that can reduce inflammation and stop harmful microorganisms from growing in the body. A 2005 study looked at four types of onions – red, violet, white and green, measuring their phenolic contents, antioxidant properties and free radical scavenging activities. Researchers found that all varieties had protective properties, with the outer layers of the red variety being a particularly rich source of quercetin, and showing significant protection of DNA damage caused by free radicals. Another study looked specifically at small yellow onions, finding that their anti-inflammatory effects selectively inhibited cell growth. Researchers concluded they could be used as a potent source of beneficial phytochemicals.
3. Onions Are Heart-Healthy Vegetables
Onions may benefit heart health in a number of ways, including lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart attack. Research shows that sulfur, which onions are high in, may act as a natural blood thinner and helps prevent blood platelets from clustering. Platelets aggregating is a known risk of heart attack and stroke. The quercetin in onions may also be a player in heart health, by potentially helping to prevent plaque buildup in the arteries, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
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