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 Interviews with Nutritional Experts: The Chemistry of Garlic Health Benefits  
Interview with Professor Eric Block PhD
   as interviewed by Richard A. Passwater PhD

I have been sharing my interest in selenium- and sulfur-containing nutrients for some time. Recently, I shared with you a conversation with selenium expert, Professor Gerhard Schrauzer, Ph.D. Now, I thought you would like to share a recent conversation I had with sulfur-chemistry expert, Professor Eric Block, Ph.D.

Dr. Block has conducted extensive research on the sulfur compounds of garlic at the State University of New York at Albany. In 25 years of studying sulfur-containing compounds, he has authored more than l20 scientific articles. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University with Nobel Laureate E. J. Corey.

Passwater: We have known of garlic's health benefits for thousands of years, but recently I've noticed an increased interest in garlic research. Now that you and other scientists have elucidated the key aspects of the chemistry of garlic that help explain how garlic actually brings about these benefits, garlic is beginning to receive wider attention from nutritionists. Besides "folklore," what suggestions or evidence have we had that garlic has major health benefits?

Block: Epidemiological and medical studies suggest that individuals regularly consuming garlic show a lower incidence of stomach cancer, have longer blood clotting times and show lower blood lipid levels (which indirectly translates into reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease).

Passwater: Do these people generally eat raw or cooked garlic, or both?

Block: Garlic is generally processed in some way, such as by cooking, or is cut and mixed with salad oil. Some people do eat garlic raw although this is not recommended.

Passwater: You don't recommend eating raw garlic?

Block: Not by itself. Raw garlic can be very irritating and could injure the digestive tract.

Passwater: Sulfur compounds tend to be very fragile and volatile. Do many of the beneficial garlic sulfur compounds survive cooking?

Block: Some do and some don't. In point of fact, cooking can convert the more fragile sulfur compounds into other sulfur compounds which are also beneficial and at the same time are a bit more robust.

Passwater: Okay, let's talk about the sulfur compounds present in garlic and what happens to them.

Block: Sulfur compounds from fresh garlic can be divided into five categories:

    l. The stable, odorless derivatives of the natural, sulfur-rich amino acid known as cysteine, found in unbroken garlic cloves and bulbs. Alliin (pronounced al-lean) is an example of this type of compound.

    2. Compounds with a very brief existence called intermediates (the chemical equivalents of shooting stars), formed when we cut, crush, or chop garlic cloves thereby freeing an enzyme (allinase is the name of the garlic enzyme), which acts on the cysteine compounds such as alliin. We know little about the intermediates for they disappear in a fraction of a second after being formed and can never be stored even at low temperatures.

    3. The isolable but none-the-less unstable and reactive compounds having a typical fresh garlic aroma and taste, formed by very rapid joining together of intermediates and found both in garlic juice as well as in the air above chopped garlic. Allicin, (pronounced "alice-in") is a well known example of compounds of this type. Actually our recent research has shown that as many as nine "chemical cousins" of allicin are also formed when garlic is cut. These other compounds also have a typical garlic aroma and taste. While allicin and its "cousins" can be prepared in pure form and studied in the research laboratory, they are termed "unstable compounds" meaning that at room temperature they have a very limited shelf life (a few hours) and cannot be stored without using special low temperature refrigerators.

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 Comments Add your comment 
Freeze-dry wrote
   3/23/2011 1:13:00 PM    (report abuse)
Freeze-drying garlic under specific conditions can give you a very high allicin content. Once garlic is heated you have literally cooked many of the nutrients. Dr. Larry Lawson with Dr. Chung-Ja Jackson former lead senior scientist at the University of Guelph Labrotary Services came up with a standard testing of allicin. She is known for her garlic standards and had many samples sent to her from all over the world. They found that under certain conditions freeze-drying does capture the allicin and yes it is cut in order to activate the enzymes, time is of the essence when it comes to this procedure. Other factors come into play, where the garlic is grown,soil, moisture. Garlic is a root crop it will only be as good as your soil. If you are organic or not makes a huge difference, whatever is in the soil is in your garlic. I am a certified organic garlic grower in Ontario. We have a very high mineral content in our clay based soil, we have our own Compostmister. It has taken us 18 years of growing and 10 years working with Dr. Chung-Ja Jackson Univerisy of Guelph Lab Services. We came to her with some fresh garlic for testing. They came back to us saying we had the highest allicin that they had ever tested. At this particular time they were testing the allicin claim in a pill from Germany which was touting 100%. It turned out to be almost 0%. Running many tests, Uof G Lab found that freeze-drying our garlic retained a very high allicin%, thus encouraging us to build a pharmaceutical grade, state of the art freeze-drying facility that can hold 1000 lb at a time. I can tell you it is not a simple process many may claim they freeze-dry the garlic but at what grade? Usually they are food-grade and they would not have the strict protocol that is required. We won the Ministers Award for Agri-Food Innovation 2007.
 About The Author
Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D. has been a research biochemist since 1959. His first areas of research was in the development of pharmaceuticals and analytical chemistry. His laboratory research led to his discovery of......moreRichard Passwater PhD
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