Alberta Cancer Foundation

What To Know About Allium Vegetables

Allium vegetables — vegetables in the onion family — are part of a growing list of raw foods that are considered beneficial to cancer prevention. The good news is many of us already use ingredients from the allium family, like onions, shallots, leeks, chives and garlic, as a means of creating base flavours when preparing a meal. Discover more about these powerful vegetables.

The breakdown

It can be tricky to link one food, or food group, to cancer prevention. Not only are there many factors that can contribute to a cancer diagnosis, but proving the connection between a certain food and cancer would be costly, time-consuming, and likely inconclusive, says registered dietitian Vincci Tsui. However, Tsui points out that there is observational data on the role of diet in cancer prevention, including promising cellular-level research into allium vegetables.

“There are theories that certain [sulphur containing] compounds in these [allium] vegetables might have anti-cancer properties,” she says.

Flavour-packed, non-starchy and often high in fibre, vegetables from the allium family can also be used as a healthier way to season a meal.

“[Allium vegetables] are a healthy way to flavour food without necessarily adding sugar or salt,” says Tsui.

But you shouldn’t worry too much if you’re not naturally drawn to the intense flavours allium vegetables often have, and would prefer to limit them in your diet.

“Don’t stress too much about what is the best vegetable or what is the best food,” she says.

Generally, the more variety of vegetables you can mix into your meals, both cooked and raw, the better. Tsui says that according to epidemiology studies, eating more vegetables overall is associated with a lower risk of cancer.

“Choosing a varied and balanced diet and enjoying what you eat — that’s going to make a bigger difference in terms of cancer prevention.”

Garlic families

There are over 600 varieties of garlic that fall into two categories: hard-neck, which are strains with a long flowering stem called a scape that are suitable for colder climes, and soft-neck, which are more delicate types that don’t develop a scape and are well-suited for long-term storage. Cheryl Greisinger, a garlic farmer and the owner of Forage & Farm in Millarville, Alta., highlights a handful of her favourite, locally grown hard-neck varieties.

Rocambole

Kiwi-sized rocambole is mainly white with soft purple splashes. “[It has] really great flavour but doesn’t necessarily have a great shelf life,” says Greisinger. “It’s popular with chefs because it’s not bitter.” Try crushing cloves in a vinegar and oil-based salad dressing so the subtle flavour can sing.

Porcelain

This variety can be white or purple and anywhere from medium to large in size. It contains a high amount of the tumour-fighting active compound allicin. To get those benefits, Greisinger recommends eating it raw. She makes a smashed garlic-infused honey that can be added to hot drinks.

Marbled Purple Stripe

Named for its dark purple and white zebra striped appearance, this variety has large cloves and bulbs.

“I call it the easy table garlic,” says Greisinger. It also contains high levels of allicin, if eaten raw. Crush or chop and add it to salsa or hot sauce.

Crushing it: How to maximize garlic’s amazing health benefits

In its bulbous form, garlic holds potent ingredients that are passive until crushed. Once crushed, these ingredients combine and create a powerful compound called allicin, which may lower cancer risk. Some studies suggest that allicin has antitumour qualities — specifically against gastric carcinoma, breast cancer, glioblastoma and cervical cancer — as it may slow cancer from multiplying and can even cause bad cells to die off. To receive its full benefits, consider crushing the garlic and letting it sit awhile before adding it to your recipe.

Forage & Farm’s Tips for Growing Garlic in Alberta

  1. Use hard-neck seeds. Many soft-neck types don’t do well in Alberta’s climate.
  2. Plant in the fall. You can plant during the spring, but fall is the ideal time.
  3. Put the clove in the ground and cover it with mulch to protect it during the freeze-thaw cycle.
  4. Pick a sunny spot. Planting where there is good drainage is also essential.
  5. Fertilize naturally. Find a comprehensive, natural fertilizer for a slow release of nutrients, and then feed the plant every couple of weeks.
  6. Harvest the scape. That green growth that comes out of the garlic can be eaten and should be cut, as it allows the bulb to grow.
  7. Replant the best-looking bulbs. Eat the ugly bulbs and plant the perfect ones — with no mould, bruises or nicks — for the best results.