On Tears, Flavor and Health

December 30, 2014 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Health, Nutrition, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve been around the grandchildren quite a few hours this week; so I’m thinking of riddles. Can a tear or two contribute to a tasty and healthy recipe? OK, in all honesty, I know that is a silly riddle. Probably most adults know that I’m probably talking about the vegetable in the allium family – onions.

An easy way to ease the tears is to stand back from the cutting.  I have told many people to breath through your mouth while cutting onions to ease the effects of the gas that causes the tear production. It works for me; but you may want to try just to quickly as possible, cut them – as far from your face as possible, to give the gas a chance to disperse before reaching your eyes. Some friends swear by the benefits of cooling them in the fridge for a half-hour to an hour before cutting. One last trick is to have faith in research that the more often you cut onions, the less you will experience the eye irritation caused by the volatile compounds.

The outside layers of the onion have the highest concentration of flavonoids; so don’t throw away any healthy layers that aren’t dried. You don’t need to worry much about onions as related to pesticides; the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists onions on their “Clean 15” list.

One of the interesting things about this common vegetable is that they are the third most commonly consumed fresh vegetable in the US. Potatoes and tomatoes are numbers one and two. The really great news is that the consumption of onions has risen more that 70% in the last 20 years. I do the jig when I learn that consumers are eating more vegetables. One nice bit of trivia is that onions are not horribly expensive, so it probably won’t break the budget to include them on your shopping list.

What made me think of onions today was the little discussion while making sage-roasted winter squash, which includes a large sliced onion. I was telling Doctor Grandpa, Victor, that my mother did not like her eyes stinging, nor even a little burning, so she refused to cook anything with onion. He was flabbergasted; he could barely believe it. To give up the flavor of onions – and how they enhance the flavor of other foods – is almost unthinkable.

Onions have been grown and selectively bred for at least 7,000 thousand years and those who built the ancient pyramids many have been fed onions.  Because the Egyptians worshipped onion and believe that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life, they buried their pharaohs with onions. There are many interesting and fun uses of onions listed in the Wikipedia post about onions.

You probably guessed that I couldn’t just let onions get by with a little chat about how long humans have used them, how delicious they are and how they make you cry. Of course, I need to give a plug for the nutrients in onions. If the flavor is not enough to convince you they’re worth shedding tears for, let me share a few tidbits about the nutritional value of onions. Although they’re a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber and lesser amounts of many other nutrients, they are recently getting lots of press because they are among the richest sources of quercetin, a flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits (and possibly anti-cholesterol, and anticancer properties). Of course, you can always count on me to remind you not to head to the vitamin store to pick up a bottle of quercetin. Rather please consider eating onions, which contain many trace vitamins and many other flavonoids in addition to quercetin. We don’t really know that it is the quercetin by itself that delivers all the health benefits. We already suspect that some of the sulfur compounds may be responsible for the cancer-protective effects. In addition the sulfur compounds and the quercetin in onions, the chromium found in onions appears to have a beneficial role for regulation of insulin. Onions may even be of benefit in decreasing your risk of hip fracture.  Certainly, if you have not read Nutritionism: Using a Single Player instead of the Entire Team, you may want to do so to further dispel the idea that all you need is a quercetin pill.  A pill won’t make you cry – at least not until you lose the flavor and health benefits of eating the whole onion.

You may be moving toward shedding a few tears while singing Auld Lang Syne, and looking forward to a happy healthy New Year. If you are, maybe you’ll want to consider including the lowly, but healthy onion in your plans for 2015.