In addition to its distinct flavor, garlic can improve digestion, cardiovascular health, immunity, cognition and energy levels. This superfood may also reduce inflammation, balance cholesterol levels and even reduce the risk of cancer.
While there are numerous chemical components of garlic that have been studied, many of its beneficial effects can be attributed to a molecule called alliin. When garlic is crushed, chewed or chopped, it releases alliin and the enzyme alliinase, which together react to form the active metabolite of garlic, allicin. Allicin is a sulfur-containing compound that is broken down into fats and other sulfur-containing metabolites after ingestion. The sulfur is at least partially to blame for the unmistakable odor of garlic.
In addition to allicin and its metabolites, fresh garlic also contains other beneficial vitamins and molecules, including vitamin C, nitrates, selenium, molybdenum and a variety of amino acids.
In the body, the compounds in garlic affect cardiovascular health by stimulating blood vessel relaxation. Garlic is also considered a prebiotic, promoting digestive health by providing nutrients to the bacteria that inhabit the gut.
The sulfur-containing metabolites in garlic influence a variety of other important signaling enzymes that are involved in inflammatory gene transcription, cancer signaling and even fat storage. In the lab and in mice, garlic can also detoxify from heavy metal exposure and can interact with iron to prevent excess absorption into the bloodstream. Supplementation with garlic also reduced overall cholesterol and improved LDL/HDL ratios in human studies.
Although garlic truly lives up to its "superfood" designation with all the bioactive compounds and metabolites, there are some downsides. Most importantly, too much garlic can be dangerous for those with low blood pressure. Garlic can also interact with enzymes that affect the metabolism of many medications.
HOW TO USE IT
Mangia! If you want to add beneficial garlic to your diet, be sure to physically disturb the cloves before consuming or cooking to promote the formation of allicin and be aware that not all forms of preparation are created equal. Microwaving garlic can degrade important compounds, while sautéing or roasting generally preserves them.
If you just can't stomach the strong flavor of garlic in your food, you can still get all the benefits through supplementation with garlic oil. Aged or boiled garlic also has many of the benefits of fresh garlic but without the strong odor. When supplementing with garlic, carefully monitor your dosage. For a 180-pound person, garlic can be toxic above 18 grams per day.