It was the 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula that introduced the world to alliumphobia, the fear of garlic (yes, the struggle is real!). While vampires have an aversion to garlic, there’s no reason for you to fear it — nor its often offending odor.
For thousands of years, and all over the world, garlic has been valued for its therapeutic properties. Even the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known today as "the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions and illnesses.
First, before considering the health benefits of any one food, Dr. Hassan says it is important to understand the basics of good nutrition. “Once you understand the foundation of health, then we can talk about that last 1 percent of the diet, which can be used to further prevent infection and improve the immune system,” he says.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, garlic is used as a dietary supplement for many purposes, including high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and the common cold, as well as in attempts to prevent cancer and other diseases. While some studies indicate that certain groups of people who eat more garlic may be less likely to develop certain cancers, such as stomach and colon cancers, the evidence on whether it lowers blood cholesterol levels or helps high blood pressure is conflicting.
Still, some studies reported by the National Institutes of Health indicate that garlic may be useful for the common cold, based on laboratory evidence that garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties. Fortunately, you don’t need much. “Eating just two cloves twice a week can substantially prevent getting a cold,” says Dr. Hassan.
“I would be cautious in taking garlic supplements, as many of them are unregulated and not FDA-approved, and vary in their doses and contamination,” he says. “If you insist on supplementation, use a product with the USP symbol on the label to make sure it is third-party–tested to look for contamination, which is common in these products.” USP stands for the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention and is a sign of vitamin quality.
Also, before consuming large amounts of garlic or taking garlic supplements, talk to your doctor, especially if you are on other medications or if you need surgery. While garlic is safe for most people in the amounts eaten in foods, garlic may increase your risk of bleeding and interfere with the effectiveness of some medications.
Finally, what’s the best way to deal with that offending odor? To remove the smell from your hands after chopping garlic, simply rub them on stainless steel, such as your kitchen sink or faucet. Garlic contains molecules with sulfur. When you touch stainless steel, the molecules in the steel bind with the sulfur molecules on your hand and transfers them to the steel. And that awful garlic breath? Just chew some parsley, a natural breath freshener.
To find out how garlic can help if you have asthma, see our story on 5 asthma superfoods.