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Your Health

Garlic a regular on your menu?

garlic

Love it or hate it, garlic is one potent little vegetable. It's cherished by many chefs and home cooks for the flavor it can add to everything from spaghetti sauce to soups and breads. But this versatile bulb does more than just charm the taste buds. Some research has suggested garlic can benefit the cardiovascular system and may help prevent cancer.

Garlic is a member of the allium family, along with onions, leeks, scallions, and chives. It's rich in health-promoting antioxidants, but its real claim to fame is its hefty dose of sulfur-containing compounds. One of them, allicin, is responsible for the pungent odor that wafts from chopped or crushed garlic. It may contribute to some of garlic's purported health benefits.

Some medical studies have found garlic lowers blood pressure modestly and in vitro studies (in the test tube) show that it inhibits blood clots by keeping platelets from clumping. To date, the results of clinical trials on whether garlic also lowers blood cholesterol are conflicting. Even so, some research suggests garlic may help prevent the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques in arteries.

Both the National Cancer Institute and the American Institute for Cancer Research report that there is some preliminary evidence that garlic may help protect against stomach and colorectal cancers. There is also a possible link garlic to decreased risk for cancers of the breast, esophagus, and pancreas. However, there is a need for more controlled research in humans to fully assess the potential health benefits of this herb and to figure out the most beneficial dose.

There are also theoretical risks associated with garlic intake. It has potential to interact with certain medications and supplements and lead to undesired and potentially dangerous side effects. For example, because it has a blood thinning effect, it should be used with caution in other medications that have the effect and by people who are at an increased bleeding risk.

Easy to add

Raw or cooked, fresh garlic is easy to add to your diet. Supplements of garlic powder, garlic oil, or garlic extract are available, too. However, always check with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.

Here are a few simple ways to get more of garlic's goodness:

  • Add minced fresh garlic to homemade or bottled salad dressing
  • Spread roasted, mashed garlic on crackers -- Top with slices of red bell pepper
  • Puree a clove or two with canned garbanzo beans, olive oil, and lemon juice to taste in a blender - use as a sandwich spread or dip
  • Add pureed roasted garlic to mashed potatoes

The most common side effects of garlic are bad breath and upset stomach. But remember: Garlic can slow blood clotting. So it should be avoided before surgery and by people taking blood thinners. People with certain medical conditions or who are on certain medications should also avoid garlic.