By Annet Nazziwa(Student at Nateete Muslim High School)
Many people in Uganda detest the near pungent smell and taking of garlic, associating them mainly with the Indian and generally Asian communities. I personally know many who would vow to starve if the only option was garlic staffed food!
Health researchers however, have found that people who eat a lot of garlic have a lower chance of getting stomach cancer, suffering from heart disease or getting a stroke than people who eat little or no garlic. Although these findings point to health benefits, from garlic they do not indicate what in garlic causes the benefits. It has been the job of chemists to find out.
The chemistry of garlic is not simple. Garlic contains more than 200 different compounds, many of which change when the cloves are cut or crushed. Cutting or crushing a garlic clove releases enzymes that cause a chain of complex chemical reactions to take place. Some of the products last only a few minutes or a few hours before they change into more stable compounds.
Chemists have focused their attention on the compounds in garlic that contain sulphur. These compounds seem to be garlic’s active ingredients. One of the most important of these is ‘allicin’, a product of the reactions that begin when garlic clove is cut or crushed.
Allicin,which is what gives crushed garlic its strong odor, is easily converted into the more stable sulphur containing compounds “ajoene”and dithin.
Chemists and health researchers have investigated the properties of allicin, ajoene and dithin and their chemical cousins.
One of the properties they all share is their ability to kill microorganisms. In other words, they are antibiotics, namely, they kill stomach bacteria that generate carcinogens. It is through this mechanism that scientists believe that garlic reduces the risk of stomach cancer.
Certain garlic compounds seem to fight cancer in other ways too. In laboratory experiments, the compounds have been shown to reduce the size of tumors in cancer of the colon, lung, skin prostate and breast.
Scientists believe that these sulphur containing compounds somehow interfere with the growth process in cancer cells but have no effect on normal cells. Garlic compounds can also prevent blood clots, which help reduce the chance of stroke. They also affect the digestion and absorption of fats therefore help lower tee level of cholesterol and fat in the blood, which is important in preventing heart disease.
Although garlic’s sulphur containing compounds are responsible for its benefits,theyare also the cause of its major drawbacks. These compounds are broken down in the body into simpler sulphur compounds with potent and unpleasant smells which are exhaled through the lungs to create “garlic breath” as we know it. What better way to draw a parallel from our “pot-snake” proverb?