This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 20, 1996
Garlic's Curative Powers
Ted Maczka is Garlic Man. "I preach the gospel of garlic," proclaims the retired tool-and-die maker. "It's my baby." Twenty years ago, Maczka "fell in love" with the pungent rose and set out to prove that Canada - which relies almost exclusively on imported garlic - could grow high-quality plants on its own soil. Now, Garlic Man tends 20 varieties of Allium sativum on his 180-acre farm near Picton, Ont. "Garlic puts lead in your petrol," he insists. At breakfast, he shreds a clove or two on his porridge and, for "a nice treat," indulges in chocolate-covered garlic. A healthy 69, Maczka is most enthusiastic about garlic's curative powers. "If I have a cold, I chew a garlic clove and I get instant relief," he notes as he catalogues garlic's antiseptic and antibiotic properties. He adds: "I'm not a medical man, but I believe in garlic as a preventive medicine."
Few doctors share Maczka's consuming passion for garlic - but many now acknowledge that the flavorful herb has significant health benefits. Garlic is loaded with vitamins B and C, protein and traces of minerals, including selenium and sulphur. But scientists believe that garlic's power lies in its essential oil - a minute component that makes up less than one per cent of a clove. The oil contains an amino acid called alliin and an enzyme, allinase. When a clove is cut or crushed, the two combine to form allicin - the compound that gives garlic its taste and smell - as well as its reputed medicinal qualities.
Scientists dismiss some of the more extravagant claims about garlic - such as its purported ability to eliminate wrinkles. But in recent years, researchers at medical centres in Europe and the United States have begun to investigate garlic's potential to prevent cancer, strengthen the immune system, alleviate arthritic pain, combat drug-resistant bacteria and improve memory. "You've heard the old wives' stories," says Bill Hill, director of the garlic hotline at the Cornell University Medical Center in New York City, which is undertaking four large-scale garlic studies. "We are setting out to prove or disprove some of them."
Most convincing, so far, is the scientific evidence that suggests that garlic can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol and reducing high blood pressure. Two long-term clinical trials are currently under way in Montreal and Toronto. One of the investigators, Dr. Kenneth Melvin, chief cardiologist at Doctors Hospital in Toronto, recently reported some early findings. In a three-month study of 19 patients with high cholesterol, half received a placebo and half an odorless garlic tablet each day. Says Melvin: "We found that garlic reduced blood cholesterol by 12 per cent."
Still, Melvin does not rely solely on garlic tablets for patients with seriously high cholesterol levels. "Garlic is not the first thing I give them," he says. Although Melvin does recommend garlic - which, he notes, is inexpensive and, unlike cholesterol-lowering drugs, has virtually no side-effects - the first line of therapy is a combination of medication, diet, exercise and weight loss. "Garlic reduces cholesterol," states Melvin. "But 12 per cent may not be enough to reduce heart risk in some people."
What dose of garlic can result in health benefits? Physicians at Cornell suggest one or two cloves a day. But Melvin says that it is more practical to take garlic pills - otherwise "you'd have to chew cloves all day." In some people, fresh raw garlic can cause gastric irritation. Experts caution that garlic tablets vary dramatically in potency, and depending on growing conditions, so does fresh garlic. "That is not important to your fettuccine Alfredo," says Melvin. "It is very important if you are looking for the compound that gives these medical benefits."
Many Canadians are not waiting for conclusive scientific proof of garlic's powers. "There has been a sharp increase in consumption of garlic products in the past few years," says Gerry Harrington, spokesman for the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association. He estimates that Canadians spend as much as $45 million a year nearly one-third of the total $150-million herbal remedies market - on garlic supplements. It is a booming market that may eventually benefit Canadian farmers. A team of scientists at Ontario's University of Guelph are about to launch a trial to test the effectiveness of a garlic supplement derived from a special, locally grown plant. It costs about $1 to produce one pound of raw garlic, while garlic tablets retail at about $400 a pound, according to Guelph nutritional scientist Bruce Holub. "Why can't we produce our own garlic products from the ground up?" he asks. It is a good question - and one that could yield a lucrative answer.
Maclean's May 20, 1996