It may not smell like a lily, but Garlic (Allium sativum) is an edible bulb from the lily family. Fondly known to herbalists as “the stinking rose”, garlic has been used as culinary medicine for centuries. It’s antimicrobial and known to help treat skin conditions, provide immune support, and reduce risk for cancer and heart disease.
Garlic contains several vitamins and minerals that support heart health, including vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, and selenium. But it’s the chemicals that give garlic its pungent odor that scientists believe are the source of the herb’s heart health-promoting effects. Garlic is rich in the allicin, alliin, and ajoene–antioxidant compounds that help reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Studies on garlic and the cardiovascular system typically use garlic powder, oil, or aged extracts. To date, the scientifically supported effects of garlic on the heart include:
- slowing the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- reducing blood pressure
- reducing triglycerides and therefore lowering total cholesterol
The amount of active compounds supplied by garlic supplements can vary because allicin is very sensitive to things such as air and heat. For example, aging garlic to reduce its odor also reduces the allicin present and compromises the effectiveness of the product.
Because allicin is only activated when garlic is sliced or crushed, I recommend that you use one of these preparations when cooking with this pungent bulb. Also, once prepped, let it “stand for ten minutes before heating it: this prevents the loss of its anti-inflammatory compounds.
When you buy garlic, look for tight heads, with cloves smooth underneath a white or purple surface, no sprouting or softness, and a huge bouquet of allicin when you crush a clove — with a knife, a press or your teeth. Get some garlic onto your plate tonight by making my Garlicky Orzo with Spinach, Fennel and Orange Zest.
If you can’t get more garlic into your daily diet, it’s possible to get it in supplement form. A meta-analysis of 11 academic studies from the past 50 years suggests that garlic preparations (i.e., supplements) are superior to placebo in reducing blood pressure in individuals with hypertension.
Although generally safe for most adults, garlic supplements can cause heartburn, upset stomach, an allergic reaction, and breath and body odor (common with raw garlic). The National Institutes of Health also recommends that breast and uterine cancer patients avoid garlic supplements as it may have an adverse interaction with some cancer drugs.
It can be difficult to tell precisely how much of the beneficial compounds you’re getting from a supplement. One option is to look for a product that is USP Verified. USP stands for the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a non-profit organization that independently tests supplements and verifies that they contains the ingredients listed, do not contain harmful levels of contaminants, among other criteria. You’ll see their sticker on the product packaging.
Two of the highest-rated garlic supplements are Garlique and this odorless product from Nature’s Bounty. It’s important to note that garlic supplements should not be taken by people who are preparing for surgery or who have bleeding disorders because it can impair the body’s ability to form blood clots.