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A Brief History Of Onion- The Benefits Of Adding Onion In Your Diet – Nutritional Benefits of Onion- Onion Effects – Are There Any?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word onion? Most of the time, you associate it with tears, unpleasant smell, and kitchen ingredient.

You have to get past the smell but onion is among the healthiest foods around. In fact, it is a must-have in every home.

Why? Read on to find out everything you need to know about this bulb-shaped vegetable.

Onion, In A Nutshell

Onion is among the widely cultivated vegetable around the world. In the United States alone, yellow onion is widely consumed, which makes up 87 percent of the commercial onion crop. California, Washington, Eastern Oregon, and Idaho are top-producing onions in the country.

Scientifically known as Allium cepa, this bulb-shaped vegetable grows underground and is closely related to garlic, scallions, chives, leeks, and shallots, which are all under the Allium genus.

Its size and shape vary, with some bigger or rounder than the others. Its size is typically between one inch and 4.5 inches in diameter. When it comes to color, onion’s ranges from white, to yellow, to red.

As to its taste, it could be anywhere between mild and sweet, and sharp and spicy. It also has a pungent flavor.

Below are the different types of onion:

  • Yellow – Its flesh is ivory white and covered in heavy brown skin. This variant has a strong aroma that is similar to sulfur. It also has higher antioxidant content compared to other variants.
  • White – It has papery white skin with a milder and sweeter taste compared to a yellow onion.
  • Red – This has a mild and sweet flavor and can be eaten raw. The outer skin and flesh are in deep magenta. Similar to yellow onions, red onions also have high antioxidant properties.
  • Green – This type of onion is still immature and has not yet formed a bulb. It is also known as scallion or spring onions.
  • Shallot – This is smaller with brown skin and purple flesh.
  • Leeks – It has a similar shape with overgrown scallions. This is recommended for soups and sauces.

Onions are often used as a flavoring dish. In fact, it is a staple ingredient in many cuisines around the world. The best part is onions can be eaten in variety of ways, thereby making it easier to include in daily diet. Unfortunately, cooking onions could reduce its antioxidant content.

Onion History

Onions have been around for centuries and believed to be among the earliest cultivated crops. It is unclear when and where it originated but most archaeologists and food historians believed that it started in Central Asia, particularly modern-day Iran and West Pakistan.

As early as 5,000 years ago, Vedic writing from India mentioned onions from “Chinese gardens.” As early as 6th century, onion is already used as a medicine, specifically as a diuretic.

Sometime 3500 B.C., Egyptians were using onions as an object of worship. In fact, onions symbolize eternity because of its “circle within a circle” structure and often buried with the pharaohs. King Ramses IV was also entombed with onions in his eye sockets. Aside from funeral offering, onions were also used on banquet tables during feasts.

It’s different for ancient Greeks.  Onions were used to energize and power up athletes before the Olympics. For the ancient Romans, onions were also used as a medicine to treat various illnesses like sore throat, toothache, dog bites, and even vision.

Onions as a natural treatment were also used during the Middle Ages in Europe. Aside from this, onions also served as a form of payment for rent and as a wedding gift.

For Native Americans, they preferred onions as a seasoning in their dishes. Eventually, the pilgrims brought onions on the Mayflower to America. Onions were documented as part of the vessels that landed in Long Island, Surinam, and even Barbados.

Today, United States, China, Turkey, India, and Pakistan are top onion producing countries in the world. Millions of people around the world are also consuming onions, making it among the most staple ingredients in the kitchen.

Red Onion and Slices Isolated on White Background

Onions Nutrition Facts

Based on its history, onions are used as a treatment for various diseases – and it’s not surprising why. The truth is onion’s nutritional profile is rich in various vitamins, minerals, and other healthy components.

This includes:

  • Energy
  • Carbohydrates, which makes up about 10 percent
  • Protein
  • Total fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C, which also acts as a powerful antioxidant
  • Vitamin E
  • B vitamins such as folate (B9), niacin, pyridoxine (B6), riboflavin, thiamin, and pantothenic acid
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Minerals like calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc
  • Phytonutrients such as beta-carotene and lutein
  • Sulfuric compounds like thiosulfinates
  • Flavonoids such as quercetin and anthocyanins
  • Phytochemicals
  • Polyphenols

Onion is also rich in fiber, which is about 0.9 to 2.6 percent of the weight, depending on the size. In particular, onion is the main dietary source of fructans. These are prebiotic fibers that feed good and beneficial bacteria in the gut.

When there is enough beneficial bacteria in the gut, short-chain fatty acids or SCFAs are formed. This could lead to reduced inflammation and better colon health among others.

It’s difficult to quantify the exact value of these nutrients due to the differences in sizes. Nonetheless, this gives you an idea on what one bulb of onion can offer and how nutrient-dense it is. You’re in for a treat, don’t you think?

Onion Benefits

Now that you are acquainted with onion’s nutritional profile, it’s time to take a deeper look at what onion can do for your health.

Here are reasons why you need to include onions in your daily diet:

Loaded With Antioxidants

Antioxidants are crucial in keeping yourself healthy. It prevents oxidation or the process that results in cellular damage and contributes to various conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Thankfully, onion is packed with powerful antioxidants. In fact, it contains different kinds of flavonoids antioxidants.

But if you want to make the most out of this benefit, then go for red onions. It is rich in anthocyanins, a pigment responsible for onion’s deep color.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, habitual intake of anthocyanins could reduce cardiovascular risk among men.

Consequently, a similar finding was found in a study published in the Circulation journal. In the said study, women who take high amounts of anthocyanins were 32 percent less likely to experience a heart attack compared to those who take few.

More importantly, there are studies showing how this pigment could help against diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Antibacterial Properties

Apart from keeping free radicals at bay, onion is also loaded with antibacterial properties.

It’s all because of quercetin, a type of flavonoid that can effectively kill bacteria such as E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Bacillus cereus among others. It could also inhibit the growth of Vibrio cholera, a type of bacteria that could lead to cholera.

Quercetin could also be effective in eliminating H.pylori, a type of bacteria that could result in stomach ulcers and certain types of digestive cancer.

It is also effective in preventing the growth of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. This antibiotic-resistant bacterium could result in infections in several parts of the body, especially when left untreated.

Simply put, onions are effective in combatting various bacterial strains to ensure your health.

Keeps Heart Healthy

If you noticed from the nutritional profile, onions are packed with antioxidant compounds that help protect your body. These antioxidants are also helpful in reducing inflammation, which could lead to lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels.

What happens next? Healthier heart.

According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, onions are effective in regulating blood pressure levels. In fact, overweight people recorded lower systolic blood pressure compared to placebo.

This is because of quercetin, a flavonoid antioxidant and a potent anti-inflammatory that could help reduce the risk of heart disease.

A similar study revealed the same result. In a study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Research, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS were asked to consume 40 to 60 grams of raw red onions for eight weeks. By the end of the eighth week, experts noticed lower total and bad cholesterol levels compared to placebo.

Cancer-Fighting Compounds

Did you know that cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide? In 2018 alone, cancer deaths reached approximately 9.6 million or one in every six deaths.

Although treatment is available, nothing beats early prevention. In that case, adding onions in your daily diet could help. This is because onions are rich in flavonoid antioxidants and sulfur compounds that are known to fight cancer. In fact, these components help decrease tumor development in test tube studies.

To be specific, these cancer-fighting compounds are:

  • Onionin A, a sulfur compound
  • Fisetin, a flavonoid antioxidant
  • Quercetin, also a flavonoid antioxidant

In a study published in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, allium vegetables, the family where the onion belongs, could reduce the risk of gastric cancer.

Another study published in the same journal noted how high onion intake could reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 15 percent.

Although onion cannot completely eliminate cancer, the good thing is it could help you lower your risk of developing certain kinds.

Controls Blood Sugar

Did you know that 34.2 million or one in every 10 Americans have diabetes? More than double this number or 88 million American adults have pre-diabetes. There was also a significant increase in diabetes cases among the youth.

This is a serious matter. If untreated, diabetes could lead to tons of health complications such as skin disorders, eye complications, neuropathy, high blood pressure, and stroke among others.

What can you do?

Aside from taking it easy on sweets and refined carbohydrates, make sure you include onions in your daily meals.

One study showed that people with type 2 diabetes could reduce sugar levels by 40 mg/dl after four hours of eating 100 grams of fresh red onions.

Experts also conducted an animal study to check the effects of onion on the rats’ blood sugar levels. In the said study, diabetic rats that were fed with five percent onion extract for 28 days experienced a decrease in blood sugar levels. Consequently, they had lower body fat compared to placebo.

This is because of onion’s quercetin and sulfur compounds, which also have anti-diabetic effects.

Improves Bone Density

When it comes to bone health, calcium takes the lead. Did you know that onions could also help in making sure that your bones are in tiptop shape?

According to a study published in Food & Function, postmenopausal women who took 100ml of onion juice every day for eight weeks showed improved bone mineral density. This is an important finding because postmenopausal women are more prone to developing osteoporosis.

A similar finding was published in the journal Menopause. Experts found out that perimenopausal and postmenopausal women who ate onions once a day had greater overall bone density by five percent. Consequently, the risk of developing hip fracture decreased by 20 percent compared to those who ate fewer onions.

How is this possible? Onions boost antioxidant levels and reduce oxidative stress in the body. As a result, the possibility of bone loss is decreased, which also means you can boost bone density and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Boosts Digestive Health

Digestive health is crucial. Through the digestive system, food can be broken down into nutrients, which the body can use to keep you energized. These nutrients are also important components for growth and cell repair.

Thankfully, adding onion in your daily diet could help ensure that your digestive health is in good condition.

Onions are also rich in fiber and prebiotics, two components that are essential for optimal gut health. This is because gut bacteria rely heavily on prebiotics to create short chain fatty acids such as acetate, butyrate, and propionate. When there is sufficient supply of short chain fatty acids, you are assured of:

  • Strengthened gut health
  • Inflammation is reduced
  • Better immunity with the help of inulin and fructooligosaccharides
  • Enhanced digestion

Aside from this, prebiotics also helps increase probiotics in the body such as bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus strains. These probiotics are also essential in digestive health.

Since eating onions becomes a habit, you are ensured that your body is more capable of absorbing minerals to be able to function properly. It also boosts the number of healthy bacteria in the gut for better immune function.

Onions Side Effects

One of the most obvious downsides of eating onions is that it could lead to bad breath and body odor.

Apart from these, did you know that eating onions could lead to eye and mouth irritation? If you’re in charged in the kitchen, then you could always find yourself in tears every time you chop onions.

This is because onion’s cells release lachrymatory factor or LF. This is a type of gas that activates neurons in the eyes that could lead to stinging sensation. As a result, the body produces tears to get rid of this irritant.

Aside from making you cry, LF is also responsible for the burning sensation in your mouth when you eat onions in its raw form. This is why it is recommended to cook onions to get rid of this gas.

Onion intolerance could also be a side effect. Onions have FODMAPs wherein some people cannot tolerate, particularly those with IBS. Watch out for symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, and heartburn. Bloating, cramping, and diarrhea are also some of the symptoms you should take note of.

Although rare, it is possible that some are allergic to onions. You can experience this either by touching or eating it.

In case you have pets, make sure to keep onions away as well. Onions have sulfides and sulfoxides, which could trigger Heinz body anemia on animals particularly cats, dogs, horses, and monkeys.

Onion Storage

Onion has high water content. This means shelf life is shorter compared to other vegetables.

If you want onions to last longer than usual, then these tips could help:

  • Store onions in cool and dry place.
  • Dark and well-ventilated room is a must, too, especially yellow onions.
  • Keep them away from direct sunlight.
  • Do not leave onions inside a plastic bag. It will cause them to spoil quickly because of poor ventilation.
  • For chopped or sliced onions, place them in a sealed container or resealable bag so they won’t easily absorb moisture. This prevents bacterial contamination as well. Put it inside the refrigerator, which could help them last seven to 10 days.
  • In case of cooked onion, place them in an airtight container or resealable bag within a few hours of cooking. Store it in the freezer to extend shelf life to three months.

If you want a longer shelf life for onions, then pickle it. Pickling could extend an onion’s life for up to six months since this method prevents the growth of bacteria. 

To do this:

  • Mix vinegar, sugar, and salt. You can also add spices like sage, turmeric, basil, and rosemary.
  • Put peeled onions in a glass or ceramic jar.
  • Pour the vinegar mixture.
  • Keep it inside the refrigerator to last longer.

Onions Recipe / Usage

Your favorite food dishes might not be as tasty without onion. In fact, it is among the most versatile ingredients because you can sauté, grill, roast, caramelize, deep fry, or serve raw in salads or dips. You can even use it as a garnish, too.

True to its versatility, onions can also be used outside the kitchen.

Here are some ways on how to use this culinary wonder other than eating them:

  • Rub raw onion on your car’s windshield to avoid frosting.
  • Place sliced onions in a bowl of water to absorb and get rid of the paint smell.
  • Use onion to scrub your barbecue grill.
  • Soak grated onions in water overnight. Then, you can use the onion water as a spray to prevent caterpillars and pests from eating your plants. This also works against ants, thereby making it a natural pest control.
  • Rub onion on rusty scissors and utensils. You can also use this to polish your silverware.
  • Use onion’s juices and rub it on your skin, especially when going outdoors. This will prevent mosquitoes from biting you because of the strong scent and flavor.
  • Mix chopped onions with water and then rub on breakout areas in your face.
  • Place onions on sunburn or burn areas to soothe pain naturally.
  • Tape a piece of onion on areas with splinters. This will make it easier for you to get it out.

In other words, onion is effective in almost anything, whether in or out of the kitchen.

Onion Alternatives

Generally, food dishes need onion. In fact, there are little recipes that don’t require this ingredient. Because of the demand, onions are readily available in the market. What happens in case you accidentally ran out?

Here are some substitutes:

  • Onion powder or flakes
  • Leeks, which is recommended for sauces and soups
  • Scallion or spring onion
  • Fennel
  • Bell pepper
  • Bottle gourd, which is great for mixed veggies, coups, curries, and desserts
  • Chives, although this may come with a little hint of garlic
  • Garlic, but you need to add more to compensate for the onion flavor
  • Carrots and tomatoes, especially if you prefer thicker soup, gravy, or curry
  • Asafetida, which is recommended for Indian dishes
  • Black salt, especially for South Asian cuisines

You can also use broth or wine for extra flavor. Don’t be afraid to experiment on herbs and spices to add more flavor to the dish.

The Bottom Line

You can easily say the onion is among the healthiest foods around. It is rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to keep you healthy. It can also be used as a natural treatment for various conditions.

Still, watch out for possible side effects. Despite its many health benefits, allergic reaction and intolerance could be a cause of concern. Pay attention to any adverse effects on the body.

The best part is onions are readily available and easier to include in your diet. How convenient is that?

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