The onion is the world's most commonly eaten vegetable and, perhaps, one of the most interesting. A member of the lily family, the familiar onion is a bulb, not a root. Its slender green shoots are beautiful in the garden. Chives, scallions, leeks and the common onion, whose vapors move us to tears, are all part of the allium family.
Originating in Asia some 5,000 years ago, onions made their way around the world, arriving in America's West Indies with the Spanish and in the holds of pilgrim ships. Native Americans already were using wild onions for medicine, dying and food. Onions quickly became and remained an important food crop throughout American history. George Washington proclaimed the onion to be "the most favored food that grows." General Ulysses S. Grant declared to the War Department that he would not move his army without onions, and his call was heard. Julia Child later said, "It's hard to imagine a civilization without onions." Today, men eat 40 percent more onions than women. What would Julia think of that?
To the early Egyptians, the onion's concentric rings represented eternity because of their resemblance to the layers of the earth and its heavens. Onions symbolized the universe, eternity, strength and health. Leaders took their oaths of office with one hand on an onion and later were accompanied into the afterlife surrounded by onions in their tombs.
Being aware of a food's impacts on your health is a good reminder that so much of our health derives from what we eat. The health benefits of onions are as numerous as the rings inside.
Early Egyptians fed the slaves who worked on the pyramids a diet of onions, garlic and parsley, and the Romans fed soldiers raw onions to keep them strong. In ancient Greece, Olympic athletes ate raw onions, drank onion juice and rubbed their skin with onions before competition.
Since ancient times, onions have been known to have antiseptic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, detoxicant and anticoagulant properties. Old onion remedies for earaches, coughs, bladder infections, bee stings, asthma, skin problems and more abound, with scores of people attesting to their effectiveness. Before you turn to the pharmacy for your next ailment, consider the onions in your pantry.
The healing chemistry of the onion hasn't escaped the attention of medical research. Onions contain the antioxidant compound quercetin and some studies have shown that eating onions prevents head and neck cancers. The onion has natural infection-fighting compounds like allyl disulfate as well as the anticoagulant compound cycloallin, which dissolves clots in the bloodstream. Eating a half a raw onion a day has been shown to boost HDL cholesterol by 30 percent. Nutritionally, they are rich in vitamin C, mineral salts, sulfur and trace elements. Perhaps modern day athletes should take a cue from those ancient Olympians?
Choose firm onions with dry, papery skin and no squishiness around the stem. When you get them home, store them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. They'll keep for three or four weeks. They may keep longer in the fridge, but be aware that they'll pull moisture (and maybe flavor) from other vegetables and fruits like apples. Right now, yellow, red and white onions are locally available, and each variety has something special to offer.
Should you choose organic or conventional? Onions are on the Environmental Working Group's "Clean 15" list, meaning they're less likely to have pesticide residues. Pesticides aside, if you want to avoid eating genetically modified foods, buying organic onions will ensure that you're not inadvertently buying GMO. Of course, if you're buying directly from your local farmer, just ask them if any of their produce is GMO. If the onions you're slicing these days don't bring on the tears you've come to expect, you might be slicing up one of the new tearless GMO varieties. (next page »)