Onions - Overview

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It’s hard to imagine a culinary life without onions. A staple of so many cuisines, onions lend a unique savory and pungent flavor to an endless variety of dishes. Eaten cooked and raw, available all year round, onions are hard to avoid and once you know about their considerable health benefits, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would want to. While onions health promoting abilities have long been recognized, it’s only recently that their considerable curative abilities have been conclusively demonstrated and thus their elevation to SuperFood status.

Cultivated for over five thousand years, onions are native to Asia and the Middle East. Their name – onion – comes from the Latin unis meaning one or single and it refers to the fact that onions, unlike their close relatives garlic, have only one bulb. Onions are now the second most important horticultural crop after tomatoes.

Onions are a major source of two phytonutrients that play a significant role in health promotion: flavonoids and the mixture of over fifty sulfur-containing compounds. The two flavonoid subgroups found in onions are the anthocyanins that impart a red/purple color to some varieties, and the flavanols such as quercetin and its derivatives that are responsible for the yellow flesh and brown skins of many varieties of onions. The flavonols are concentrated in the skin of most onions where they contribute to the color of the vegetable.

We now know that the health promoting compounds in onion, like those in garlic, are separated by cell walls. Slicing an onion ruptures these walls and releases the compounds which then combine to form a powerful new compound: thiopropanal sulfoxide. In addition to mitigating various diseases, this substance also gives cut onions their pungent aroma and their ability to make us cry.

To get the most health benefits from onions, let them sit for five to ten minutes after cutting and before cooking. Heat will deactivate the thiopropanal sulfoxide and you want to give it time to fully develop and concentrate before heating.
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