A Clove Affair With Garlic

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It can kill a romantic evening in a hurry, but can it cure cancer?

The answer likely depends on just how big a fan of garlic you are. Sure, it's a good way to jazz up a pot of spaghetti sauce, but the most pungent member of the lily family has begun to gain a kind of cult following in the United States as a health food. It has been credited, variously, with being a retardant of carcinogens, a reducer of heart disease, an aid to digestion and a killer of harmful bacteria.

Or, it's simply a tasty salad additive that gives you dragon breath. True believers abound; so do skeptics.

There's no denying the increasing popularity of garlic in the United States, however. According to the Fresh Garlic Assn. and the folks who run the Gilroy Garlic Festival--the annual garlic orgy in the Northern California town that produces nearly 90% of the garlic consumed in this country--the U.S. production this year will top 150 million pounds, almost all of which will be sold domestically. This is almost double the garlic consumption of a decade ago.

A good amount of that garlic is passing the lips of people who are convinced that they've found a kind of low-cost penicillin-in-a-bulb, but the traditional medical community still isn't ready to officially embrace it as an ally against disease.

"I don't know of any shred of scientific evidence that garlic has any health benefits," said Daniel Hollander, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at UCI. "They're all just folk stories."

Garlic, contends Hollander, is simply a "neutral" food: it won't help or hurt you.

Still, there have been a lot of those folk stories over the centuries. The Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks and Babylonians used garlic as a cure for intestinal disorders, infections of the respiratory system, worms, lice and nits, skin diseases and ulcers, and the symptoms of aging.

The Vikings and the Phoenicians packed it in their sea chests for long voyages. Garlic-scented oil was used as offerings to Greek and Chinese gods, and several Mediterranean cultures have used it to ward off witches, warlocks, the evil eye and vampires. Garlic was entombed with King Tut.

Gladiators were fed garlic to give them strength and courage, battlefield surgeons in World War I used scalpels that were disinfected by drawing them through cloves of garlic, and in World War II it was known as "Russian penicillin."

Many, of course shun garlic, but not necessarily because they don't like the taste; they fear that the resulting breath that the bulb produces will drive others away. But John Sharp, the corporate chef at Bistro 201 and Barbacoa restaurants, said that most or all of the properties in garlic that cause strong breath can be broken down in the cooking process.

Boiling, particularly, seems to do the trick. One famous recipe from southern France calls for a chicken cooked in a pot in boiling broth and surrounded by 40 (yes, 40) cloves of garlic. The long, gentle cooking of the bird infuses the chicken with the flavor of the garlic but renders the actual cloves so mild that they can be eaten whole.

Today, the enthusiasm for garlic as a health-promoting food centers on various studies that have been published in recent years linking the bulb to a handful of beneficial effects. The results look promising, but they are not conclusive proof. Among the findings:

* In 1858, Louis Pasteur discovered that garlic juice killed certain bacteria in culture dishes.

* A National Cancer Institute study conducted in China found that the risk of stomach cancer appeared to decline with increased consumption of allium vegetables (garlic is one; onions, leeks, chives and scallions are others). The precise anti-cancer effect of the allium vegetables was not pinpointed, however.

* At Loma Linda University, 15 volunteer patients with high cholesterol were fed dosages of garlic extract in capsule form. A control group was fed garlic-free placebos. After six months 11 people in the garlic group had lowered their cholesterol by more than 10%. Only two people in the placebo group had lowered cholesterol.

* Animal studies at Penn State, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and at UCLA have shown that the biologically active compounds in garlic may help block the action of agents that cause cancer of the colon, rectum, breast, esophagus and skin.

* A study at Tagore Medical College in India showed that a test group of patients who had already suffered one heart attack and who then took garlic supplements equivalent to six to 10 cloves per day had significantly lower cholesterol counts and had fewer additional heart attacks than a group that did not take garlic.

* In Germany, studies have linked garlic to improvements in blood pressure, plasma viscosity and blood flow.

The heroes of many of these studies appear to be a pair of compounds in garlic: allicin (a liquid oxide released when garlic is cut or crushed) and ajoene, which appears to prevent blood clots. But, as perhaps a further indication of the sometimes contentious nature of garlic research, there has been disagreement on whether cooking wipes out the beneficial effects of allicin and ajoene.

Dr. Robert Lin says no. Lin, a nutrition researcher and specialist in biophysics and nuclear medicine with Irvine-based Nutrition International Co. and the organizer of the 1990 World Garlic Congress in Washington, D.C., said that cooking garlic not only doesn't impede its benefits, it removes the harsh taste and the resulting overpowering breath that eating fresh garlic can produce.

There is yet another form of garlic that Lin says has become more popular as garlic gains acceptance in the United States: garlic supplements. Generally marketed either in capsule or in liquid form, this "aged" garlic, said Lin, offers all the benefits of eating raw garlic, but without the attendant smell and harsh taste.

One of the largest marketers of garlic supplements in the United States and, said Lin, the only producer of aged garlic in the country, is Mission Viejo-based Wakunaga of America, which markets its product under the name Kyolic. According to Lin, the sales of garlic supplements (which cost from $7 to $9 for bottles of 100 tablets) have doubled and even tripled in recent years, along with the increase in consumption of fresh garlic.

Fine. But what if you have an undeniable craving for the real, raw thing? What do you do about that blistering breath? The people at the Fresh Garlic Assn. claim that eating lemon juice and parsley helps, but they also offer some more companionable advice as well: Hang out with people who also love garlic. They won't care.

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