By: Lisa Costa Bir, BA App Sc. Naturopathy, Grad Dip. Naturopathy
A few weeks ago I was asked to write this article on garlic. Initially I thought it would be as simple as detailing the extensive evidence out there which highlights the benefits of consuming garlic, like: "Garlic is a powerful anti-microbial (1)" or "Epidemiological studies suggest that garlic consumed at least twice a week may help to protect against stomach and colon cancer(2)". Aside from a refreshment on the health benefits, I gained much more, including an insight into the seedy and not so seedy practices of garlic farming that has changed my garlic buying habits forever.
The 'seedy' world of garlic? Am I being a bit melodramatic?
Well, would you still purchase garlic if you knew that it had been whitened using bleach? Would you still purchase garlic if you knew it had been sprayed with toxic chemicals? Both these practices commonly occur in Australia.
Lets do an experiment. Next time you're at the supermarket or greengrocer, have a look for some Aussie grown garlic and you'll likely be surprised. Despite favourable growing conditions in Australia, most of the garlic (approx 80-90%) you see at the shops has been imported. During a quick drive around my local area I found garlic from Mexico at greengrocer number 1, garlic from China at greengrocer number 2 and garlic from Spain and Mexico at Woolworths.
There are good reasons for importing food sometimes, but a problem with importing from other countries is that the standards for farming can differ markedly from those in Australia. For example, those big, very white bulbs of garlic you see at the supermarket from China probably look so white and pristine because they have been bleached with chlorine. This is because retailers believe the flawless white colour will make the garlic look more aesthetically pleasing to the consumer. We consumers need to wake up and realise that perfect aesthetics don't always equal healthy produce - indeed, sometimes it is the opposite!
Jay Logan an organic produce distributor in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, says customers new to organic produce often question minor imperfections and colour variants in food because they are used to perfect-looking conventional produce. He stresses that they need to understand that no wax, bleach or anything like this is added to organic foods to touch them up. Logan says, "While it (organic fresh produce) may not always look as flawless as the stuff you'll see in the supermarket, the taste is far superior".
Aside from the practice of bleaching, all imported garlic is fumigated with methyl bromide to get rid of any bugs, in accordance with Australian quarantine standards. Methyl bromide is a major environmental hazard because it is an ozone depleting substance, and many other countries have banned its use for this reason. It is also highly toxic. But don't just take my word for it. The Australian government also recognise that it is a noxious chemical for workers to handle. So why do they think it's okay to spray on a food we are going to ingest?
As well as the potential presence of chlorine and methyl bromide, imported garlic may be treated with growth inhibitors and subjected to cold temperatures, as well as over-storage. Over storage is particularly problematic as levels of allicin, one of the major constituents in garlic responsible for its health benefits, start to decline over time. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that locally grown Australian garlic is looking better and better.
But that's if you can find it.
Australian farms growing garlic have dwindled dramatically and a few years ago garlic farming became the second biggest decline of the horticultural industry. Why the decline? Overseas importers can produce cheaper (yet inferior) garlic and, as is visible from the miniscule quantity of Australian garlic available for purchase, many Australian growers have been wiped out.
Growing quality garlic takes time and is extremely labour intensive compared to growing other crops, particularly if one is growing organic garlic. Organic, biodynamic garlic growers like Patrice Newell of Elmswood Farm do everything by hand, including seeding, planting, weeding, picking, curing and packing the garlic. When something is so fastidiously grown and cared for, you can guarantee no short cuts have been taken. No sprays, no chemicals, just fresh garlic. And the extra care clearly counts, as the taste is exceptional. Patrice also points out that because the garlic at Elmswood Farm is handled by people and not machines, it is less liked to be bruised.
Here's what I think: shouldn't we support local growers like Patrice Newell, who are doing the right thing, instead of importers, who take short cuts and produce inferior-tasting garlic that is sprayed with chemicals that affect our health and the environment? If we want good quality produce free of chemicals then we need to vote with our dollar. Only purchase Australian organic garlic. Ask your retailer for it if they don't stock it.
So next time you're buying garlic, don't just be persuaded on price point. Cheaper is not always better, particularly when it comes to your health. Check the origin of your garlic. If it's grown overseas you may want to give it a miss, not just because you'll be reducing your carbon footprint by supporting local, home-grown produce with a superior taste, quality and health promoting constituents, but also because you'll be doing your body a favour by ingesting fewer harmful chemicals.
I saw organic garlic stored in the fridge at my local supermarket. Don't put your garlic in the fridge because it hates the damp and cold. According to Patrice Newall, the cold temperature triggers the garlic into thinking it is winter and will cause it to sprout. The exception to this rule is if you live in Queensland, due to the humidity. Many Queenslanders report their garlic actually lasts longer in the fridge.
1. Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2007) Herbs & Natural Supplements, An Evidence Based Guide (2nd Ed) Elsevier
2. Fleischauer AT, Arab, L. Garlic & Cancer: a critical review of the epidemiological literature. J Nutr 131.3 (2001): 1032-40S
Lisa Costa Bir maintains a clinical practice in South Sydney where she specialises in food as medicine. Having experienced the benefits of good nutrition and the subsequent good health it can bring, Lisa is passionate about helping others discover the same benefits. Contact lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org