Long before Transylvanians were tying garlands of garlic around their necks to ward off vampires, civilizations dating back to ancient Egypt were using "the stinking rose" to defend against other evils. Garlic was thought to cure everything from infections to impotence. To this day, in Italy you might be given a slice of toasted bread, olive oil and a clove of garlic to rub on the bread as a bit of hospitality to ensure your health.
"Garlic is up on the highest level of herbal medicine, right up there with ginseng and rosemary and things that are used to boost the immune system and fight infection. For most purposes, nothing really beats fresh garlic," says Matthew Becker, herbalist and lead practitioner at integrative pharmacy Pharmaca in Boulder, Colo.
Yet, no matter how healthy fresh raw garlic is, many Americans would rather be bitten by a vampire than be accused of having garlic breath. Furthermore, some people suffer from heartburn or stomachache when they eat raw garlic. Luckily for sensitive noses and stomachs, modern science has sought and found a bouquet of garlic supplements that provides all the benefits of garlic without its telltale perfume or harsh effects on the digestive system.
Kyolic, the Mission Viejo, Calif.-based garlic supplement division of Wakunaga of America Co., has its own garlic gardens, uses organic garlic in its supplements and has funded more than 200 peer-reviewed studies, most of which prove different benefits from aged garlic extract. In fact, the studies show it's hard to narrow down which conditions garlic supplements don't help. Studies have found aged garlic extract to protect white blood cells from radiation, improve age-related immune system deterioration, reduce oxidative damage in smokers and many other perks. However, there are a few benefits for which garlic is best known.
"The main reasons that people are buying garlic supplements are for cardiovascular [health] and cholesterol," says Jay Levy, director of sales for Kyolic, which manufactures aged garlic extract.
Garlic helps to suppress the creation of bad cholesterol and prevent the build-up of plaque around the inside of the arteries. Garlic also has blood-thinning properties; it makes the platelets in blood more slippery so they can glide though the cardiovascular system with ease. In addition, garlic improves the elasticity of the cardiovascular system, again making it easier and more efficient for the heart to pump blood through the body.
More scientists are beginning to look at garlic's cancer-preventing abilities. In April 2005 in Washington, D.C., the "Garlic and its Constituents in Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease" symposium, sponsored by Strang Cancer Prevention Center, Habor-UCLA Medical Center, American Botanical Council and others, brought together scientists who had done experiments with garlic to try to come to conclusions on garlic's healthfulness. Garlic and its constituents were found to have strong antioxidant properties in preclinical studies, and further studies suggested promising results for preventing various forms of cancer.
Garlic's longest-standing claim is that it boosts the immune system. Add to that its antibacterial and antiviral properties, and it is no wonder that people hunt down garlic supplements in hopes of curing their colds. But according to Pharmaca's Becker, garlic supplements do not have the same antibacterial or antiviral properties as fresh, raw garlic.
"For parasites nothing beats fresh, raw garlic," he said.
Levy concurred that garlic supplements lack some of the antibacterial and antiviral properties of fresh, raw garlic, but pointed out that the supplements still contain immune-boosting abilities and also have anti-inflammatory properties. Fighting inflammation is one of the first steps toward healing.
Other studies sponsored by Kyolic have found that there are very few pitfalls to taking AGE. Preliminary studies suggest that it is safe for pregnant women. Also according to Kyolic's studies, garlic is compatible with most prescription drugs, even blood thinners.
Garlic supplements are prepared in different ways, which can change their chemical makeup. In an article published in The Journal of Nutrition in March, Khalid Rahman and Gordon M. Lowe wrote: "The common preparations that have been investigated are raw garlic, garlic powder tablets, oil of steam-distilled garlic, oil of oil-macerated garlic, ether-extracted oil of garlic and aged garlic extract. All of these preparations differ in their composition, which makes comparing studies difficult." Seventeen of 31 studies published in The Journal of Nutrition were done with AGE.
Competing manufacturers debate the relative benefits of oil-soluble versus water-soluble garlic compounds. Many garlic supplement pills contain a powder that is mostly oil-soluble garlic compounds. AGE contains mostly water-soluble garlic compounds.
One thing everybody agrees on is that allicin, the sulfur compound found in garlic, is the main reason garlic is so effective in preventing disease. Some manufacturers list the amount of allicin on the label. "If you had to pick something out, and I'm not necessarily a reductionist—I don't think you just look for one thing, that's not what natural medicine is about—but it does seem to be the case that allicin is pretty beneficial," says Becker.
If consumers are concerned about smell, point them to labels that say "enteric-coated." This means the supplement will not begin to break down and be digested until is has reached the lower intestine. Therefore, any sulfuric smells will only be released at a safe distance from the mouth. Some supplements also contain chlorophyll, a natural deodorizer sometimes used to fight halitosis. Because the smelly component of garlic is an oil-soluble compound, water-soluble AGE does not cause bad breath, Levy says.
"Supplements are convenient and concentrate a lot of the benefits," says Jack Challem, author of Feed Your Genes Right, (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). Challem is a huge fan of garlic in his food and could not say enough about fresh, raw garlic.
"I believe there are two types of people in the world: One type loves garlic, and the other type hates garlic," he says.
With the advent of garlic supplements, everybody can be happy.
Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 34, 38