Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Onions have been with us since time immemorial. In the olden times, they were mentioned to have been eaten by the Israelites. In Numbers 11:5, the children of Israel lament the meager desert diet enforced by the exodus: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.”
Onions have been cultivated for 5000 years or more, according to the National Onion Association in the United States. “Since onions grew wild in various regions, they were probably consumed for thousands of years and domesticated simultaneously all over the world,” it said. “In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life. Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption when food might be scarce.”
In Egypt, onions can be traced back to 3500 B.C., where they were actually an object of worship. The onion symbolized eternity to the Egyptians who buried onions along with their Pharaohs. The Egyptians saw eternal life in the anatomy of the onion because of its circle-within-a-circle structure. The onion is mentioned as a funeral offering, and onions are depicted on the banquet tables of the great feasts – both large, peeled onions and slender, immature ones. They were shown upon the altars of the gods.
In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of the onion because it was believed that it would lighten the balance of the blood. Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onion to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages, onions were such an important food that people would pay for their rent with onions and even give them as gifts.
The Romans, on the other hand, ate onions regularly and carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany. The Roman gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the first cookbooks (which dates to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), included many references to onions.
What was so special about onions, anyway? Nothing, except that they were valued for their medicinal properties. In India as early as the sixth century B.C., the famous medical treatise Charaka – Sanhita celebrates the onion as medicine: a diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints.
Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the first century A.D., noted several medicinal uses of onions. The Greeks used onions to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games. Before the competition, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies.
Before he was overcome and killed by the volcano’s heat and fumes, Pliny the Elder cataloged the Roman beliefs about the onion’s efficacy to cure vision, induce sleep, and heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery, and lumbago.
It is interesting to note that during the plague-epidemic in London, when the contagion spread everywhere, the owners of onion and garlic shops were the only persons who proved immune to the disease.
Today, onions are available in fresh, frozen, canned, pickled, and dehydrated forms. Onions can be used, usually chopped or sliced, in almost every type of food, including cooked foods and fresh salads. As a spicy garnish, they are rarely eaten on their own but usually act as an accompaniment to the main course. Depending on the variety, an onion can be sharp, spicy, tangy, and pungent or mild and sweet.
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack. These are often served as a side serving in fish and chip shops throughout the United Kingdom. Onions are a staple food in India and are therefore fundamental to Indian cooking. They are commonly used as a base for curries or made into a paste and eaten as a main course or as a side dish.
In many parts of the world, onions are still valued for their therapeutic properties. Onions are very popular in healing blisters and boils. A traditional Maltese remedy for sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight. In the morning, the spikes will be in the onion. In the United States, products that contain onion extract (such as Mederma) are used in the treatment of topical scars.
In virile disorders, one should take onion-juice with honey daily in the morning for two to three weeks. This will increase one’s virility. The onion saves one from sunstroke. If one suffers from sunstroke, the onion relieves it. Eating onion in the morning and at bed-time is beneficial in jaundice.
The onion dislodges mucous and prevents its fresh formation. The onion is beneficial to the aged. The onion is also beneficial in intestinal disorders. The use of onions stimulates the process of peristalsis (contraction and expansion) of the intestines and removes intestinal putrefaction and flatulence. It is also useful in indigestion and biliousness.
Nutritionists have found that onions are rich in powerful sulfur-containing compounds – particularly allyl propyl disulfide — that are responsible for their pungent odors and for many of their health-promoting effects. In addition, onions are very rich in chromium, a trace mineral that helps cells respond to insulin, plus vitamin C (it loses this vitamin when preserved for a long time), and numerous flavonoids, most notably, quercetin.
Experts believe that the higher the onion intake, the lower the level of glucose found during oral or intravenous glucose tolerance tests. Experimental and clinical evidence suggests that allyl propyl disulfide is responsible for this effect and lowers blood sugar levels by increasing the amount of free insulin available. Allyl propyl disulfide does this by competing with insulin, which is also a disulfide, to occupy the sites in the liver where insulin is inactivated. This results in an increase in the amount of insulin available to usher glucose into cells, causing a lowering of blood sugar.
The regular consumption of onions has also been shown to lower high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, both of which help prevent atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. Experts believe that these beneficial effects are likely due to onions’ sulfur compounds, its chromium, and its vitamin B6, which helps prevent heart disease by lowering high homocysteine levels, another significant risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
Onions have been singled out as one of the small numbers of vegetables and fruits that contributed to the significant reduction in heart disease risk seen in a meta-analysis of seven prospective studies. Of the more than 100,000 individuals who participated in these studies, those whose diets most frequently included onions, tea, apples, and broccoli – the richest sources of flavonoids — gained a 20% reduction in their risk of heart disease.
Consuming a lot of onions is a nutritious way to help keep those bugs away. “Eat a couple of raw onions daily, or use a lot of it in your cooking, and mosquitoes and other insects will usually avoid you,” says Dr. Jerome Z. Litt, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s because onions give off an unpleasant odor to insects when you perspire.
Having a stuffy nose? Sniff an onion. “Basically, the only thing you get from rubbing on menthol or other decongestants in some irritation that stimulates the nose to run and unblock the stuffiness,” says Dr. Hueston C. King, an American otolaryngologist. “You can get the same effect from smelling an onion.”
Yes, onions are not only for cooking; they are also good for your health!