Will 50 cloves of garlic kill your cold — or just your love life? Pungent foodstuff may hold key to beating winter illness
According to folklore, it keeps vampires at bay. And it will definitely keep your loved ones at arm’s length.
But could a soup made with more than 50 cloves of garlic protect you from colds, flu and even norovirus?
As Britain sneezes and coughs its way through these dark months of contagious nasties, garlic is being hailed for its powers to halt viruses in their tracks.
It has gained its reputation as a virus buster thanks to one of its chemical constituents, allicin.
‘This chemical has been known for a long time for its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal powers,’ says Helen Bond, a Derbyshire-based consultant dietitian and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association.
‘Because of this, people assume it is going to boost their immune systems. Lots of people I know are simply mashing up garlic, mixing it with olive oil and spreading it on bread.
‘But how or whether it may actually work has still not been proven categorically.’
Indeed, scientists remain divided on garlic’s ability to combat colds and flu. Last March, a major investigation by the respected global research organisation, the Cochrane Database, found that increasing your garlic intake during winter can cut the duration of cold symptoms — from five-and-a-half days to four-and-a-half.
But the report, which amalgamated all previous scientific studies on garlic, said it could not draw solid conclusions because there is a lack of large-scale, authoritative research.
The problem is that pharmaceutical companies are not interested in running huge, expensive trials — as they would with promising new drug compounds — because there is nothing in garlic that they can patent, package and sell at a profit.
If garlic were found to be a wonder drug, consumers could simply buy it in the supermarket for 30p a bulb or grow their own in the garden.
Nevertheless, garlic has a long and proud tradition as a medicine. The Ancient Egyptians recommended it for 22 ailments. In a papyrus dated 1500 BC, the labourers who built the pyramids ate it to increase their stamina and keep them healthy.
The Ancient Greeks advocated garlic for everything from curing infections, and lung and blood disorders to healing insect bites and even treating leprosy.
The Romans fed it to soldiers and sailors to improve their endurance. Dioscorides, the personal physician to Emperor Nero, wrote a five-volume treatise extolling its virtues.
But it wasn’t until 1858 that the French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered garlic kills bacteria. After placing it in a petri dish full of bacteria, Pasteur noted that within a few days a bacteria-free area had formed around each clove.
More recently, researchers have unearthed evidence to show garlic may help us to stay hale and hearty in a number of ways.
Last June, nutrition scientists at the University of Florida found eating garlic can boost the number of T-cells in the bloodstream. These play a vital role in strengthening our immune systems and fighting viruses.
And pharmacologists at the University of California found that allicin — the active ingredient in garlic that contributes to bad breath — is an infection-killer.
Allicin also makes our blood vessels dilate, improving blood flow and helping to tackle cardiovascular problems such as high cholesterol.
An Australian study of 80 patients published last week in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that diets high in garlic may reduce high blood pressure.
So, armed with all this good news — and in dread fear of succumbing to a cold, flu or winter vomiting bug — I attempted to prepare the most garlicky dish known to man: a steaming bowl of warming, nutritious soup made with more than 50 cloves.
I approached the task with trepidation as volunteers in some clinical trials to test garlic’s medicinal properties have not always spoken favourably of the experience.
In 2007, dentists in Brazil found that gargling with garlic water (made by steeping crushed garlic cloves in warm, but not boiling, water) can kill the germs that cause tooth decay and gum disease.
But they hit a snag: the volunteers refused to continue the experiment, complaining that the garlic gargle made them feel sick. Looking at the garlic soup recipe certainly made me feel queasy. Still, it gave me an excuse to use up my ample supply of garlic.
Though last year’s awful weather caused crop failures on my allotment, I enjoyed a bumper harvest of garlic.
Among its many other virtues, garlic kills slugs and snails. Researchers from the University of Newcastle believe it contains oils that may cripple the nervous systems of these slimy creatures.
Back to my 52-clove soup: there are two schools of thought as to the best way of preparing garlic to make the most of its medicinal qualities.
Argentinian investigators found it releases its allicin-type compounds when you bake the cloves, while scientists at South Carolina Medical University believe peeling garlic and letting it sit uncovered for 15 minutes produces the highest levels of compounds to fight infection.
So I simply peel half of the garlic cloves and roast the other half with the kitchen door tightly closed (to stop the pong permeating throughout the house).
After an hour-and-a-quarter’s industrious soup-making, I sprinkle parmesan and lemon juice over a bowl of steaming, grey gloop and tuck in.
The heady aroma certainly revs up the appetite and the first spoonful does not disappoint. Delicious as it is, however, one large bowl of home-made soup is a more than ample meal.
Indeed, by the time the bottom of the bowl appears, I am feeling green. The final spoonfuls are a bit of an effort and I am left with a not entirely pleasant metallic after-taste. The leftovers go into the fridge for later.
As for the soup’s cold-preventing powers, only time will tell. Regular bowlfuls may very well keep me free of winter ailments, thanks to the virus-killing compounds they contain.
Or it could just be that my nuclear-strength garlic breath will keep everyone who is infectious far out of sneezing range for months to come.