The health benefits of onion, one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, are well known. The onion (allium cepa) was very popular in ancient Egypt and was revered for medicinal as well as spiritual reasons. Ancient Egyptians believed that onions represented eternal life and hence buried these with the pharaohs and depicted them on their tombs. Ancient Indian treatises also describe the medicinal properties of onion in great detail.
Believed to have originated in Central Asia, in the Iran-Pakistan region, onions have been cultivated in India and the Middle East since ancient times and are today cultivated in most parts of the world. The onion, which belongs to the lily family, is perhaps the most widely eaten vegetable.
There are different varieties of onion, the most popular ones being yellow, red, and white. In India, the small pearl onions are also very popular and used whole in curries and soups. Chives, shallots, green or spring onions, scallions, leeks, and garlic are the other interesting members of the onion family. Versatile in taste, from sweet, sharp, mild, to pungent, the onion is an important vegetable to have in the kitchen.
The onion is a cool-season vegetable and high temperatures and low humidity are helpful during the bulbing and curing phase. The onion bulb grows underground and is formed by the thickening of the leaf base. To harvest, onions are dug from the ground and left out to dry thoroughly in the sun until the skin becomes brittle.
Onions have a long storage life which is associated with their pungency; the dried and cured bulbs remain fresh for several months without deterioration when stored properly.
Onion and Health
The onion, which derives its name from the Latin onio and French oignon, is highly valued for its therapeutic properties which are associated with its pungency. While all onions are healthful, yellow onions are ranked as the most healthful as they are the most pungent, followed by red, and then white onions.
The onion is rich in calcium and iron, and has moderate protein content. The iron in onion is easily absorbed and therefore commonly prescribed for anemia by natural health experts.
The onion has been used as a home remedy since ancient times. Physicians in ancient Egypt prized the onion for its diuretic, stimulating, and expectorant properties. Even today, raw onion juice mixed with honey is used as an expectorant to get rid of phlegm associated with respiratory problems such as cold, cough, bronchitis, and influenza.
Scientists have identified approximately 150 phytonutrients in the onion, but, so far, have studied and determined the healing qualities of only a few. The phytonutrients quercetin and isothiocyanates that are abundant in onions have been found beneficial in treating inflammatory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Quercetin has also been found helpful in reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Research shows that including onions regularly in the diet can reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This is attributed to the sulfur compounds, chromium, and vitamin B6 in onions. One teaspoon of raw onion juice first thing in the morning can regulate blood cholesterol levels by oxidizing excess cholesterol. As such, onions are a great way to keep heart disease at bay. Experts recommend mixing raw onion juice and honey in equal quantities and drinking 2 tablespoons once a day for 1-2 weeks for beneficial results.
The raw onion and honey juice can also cure that pesky cough. Allow the juice to rest for 4 to 5 hours and take 1-2 tablespoons twice a day.
Recent research shows that onions kill bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease and other dental problems. Chewing a raw onion for three minutes is sufficient to kill all the germs in the mouth, and placing a piece of onion on the affected tooth or gum can also relieve toothache.
Raw onion juice, on its own or combined with garlic juice, is also effective in treating boils. Apply raw onion juice on boils to break them and remove the pus.
The aphrodisiac properties of onion have long been known in India. Onion and garlic both increase libido and strengthen the reproductory organs.
Onion is also geat for skin disorders; the stinging quality improve the blood circulation in the skin and roasted or raw onion can be applied as a poultice on boils, bruises, and wounds.
The diuretic properties of onion are useful in treating urinary disorders.
Next time you tear up when chopping onions, remember all the health benefits of onion!
- Buy firm, fresh-looking onions that don’t have grey mildew patches. Store separately in a cool, dark, and dry place. Do not combine them with potatoes or other vegetables. Other vegetables, particularly potatoes, emit a gas that that spoils onions rapidly. Also be sure to keep them away from moisture to prevent them from rotting. You can also hang them in mesh bags.
- Onions contain a sulfur compound called propanethial-S-oxide which floats into the air when you cut them. This compound is converted to sulfuric acid when it comes in contact with water which is why it stings your eyes. To prevent this, peel the onions and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes before chopping; chilling inactivates the propanethial-S-oxide and prevents it from floating into the air.
- To get rid of onion breath, chew a little parsley or a coffee bean.
- To get the onion smell off your hands, rub a little lime juice or vinegar.
- To cut down cooking time when using onions in soups and dals, first saute the onions in a little oil until they start to sweat and then add water to boil them.
- Use raw onions when possible as raw onions are easier to digest than cooked or fried ones. Raw onions are also more pungent hence better in terms of nutritional and therapeutic value. Cooking can reduce the hunger-busting phytonutrient, allicin.
Foods That Heal, H. K. Bakhru
The Complete Book of Nutritional Healing, Mithcell, Deborah
Handbook of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dr. Jyoti Singh
Last updated on October 14, 2015