Thursday, April 21, 2011

Superfood: Onion

The onion is any of a variety of plants in the genus Allium, specifically Allium cepa. Allium cepa is also known as the "garden onion" or "bulb" onion. Above ground, the onion shows only a single vertical shoot; the bulb grows underground, and is used for energy storage, leading to the possibility of confusion with a tuber, which it is not. It is a close relative to garlic.
Allium cepa is known only in cultivation, but related wild species occur in Central Asia. The most closely related species include Allium vavilovii (Popov & Vved.) and Allium asarense (R.M. Fritsch & Matin) from Iran. However, Zohary and Hopf warn that "there are doubts whether the A. vavilovii collections tested represent genuine wild material or only feral derivatives of the crop.”
Onions are found in a large number of recipes and preparations spanning almost the totality of the world's cultures. The whole plant is edible and is used as food in some form or the other. They are now available in fresh, frozen, canned, caramelized, pickled, powdered, chopped, and dehydrated forms. Onions can be used, usually chopped or sliced, in almost every type of food, including cooked foods and fresh salads and as a spicy garnish. In European cultures they are rarely eaten on their own, but usually act as accompaniment to the main course. Depending on the variety, an onion can be sharp, spicy, tangy, and pungent or mild and sweet.
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack. These are often served as a side serving in fish and chip shops throughout Australia, often served with cheese in the United Kingdom and are referred to simply as "pickled onions" in Eastern Europe. Onions are widely used in Iran and India and Pakistan, and are essential to daily life in the local cuisine. They are commonly used as a base for curries or made into a paste and eaten as a main course or as a side dish.
Onions are also used as an aromatic in cooking. In the classic mirepoix it is used along with celery and carrots to flavor stocks, soups, stews and sauces.
Onions have particularly large cells that are readily observed at low magnification; consequently, onion tissue is frequently used in science education for demonstrating microscope usage.
Possible medicinal properties and health effects of onions
In many parts of the world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. A traditional Maltese remedy for sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight. An application of raw onion is also said to be helpful in reducing swelling from bee stings. In the United States, products that contain onion extract are used in the treatment of topical scars; some studies have found their action to be ineffective, while others found that they may act as an anti-inflammatory or bacteriostatic and can improve collagen organization in rabbits.

Wide-ranging claims have been made for the effectiveness of onions against conditions ranging from the common cold to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. They contain chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant properties such as quercetin. However, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that increased consumption of onions is directly linked to health benefits. Some studies have shown that increased consumption of onions reduces the risk of head and neck cancers. In India some sects do not eat onion due to its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Many also believe that eating onions can lead to weight loss. However, this claim has never been substantiated.
Onions may be especially beneficial for women, who are at increased risk for osteoporosis as they go through menopause, by destroying osteoclasts so that they do not break down bone.
An American chemist has stated that the pleiomeric chemicals in onions have the potential to alleviate or prevent sore throat. Onion in combination with jaggery has been widely used as a traditional household remedy for sore throat in India.
Shallots have the most phenols, six times the amount found in Vidalia onion, the variety with the lowest phenolic content. Shallots also have the most antioxidant activity, followed by Western Yellow, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Northern Red, Mexico, Empire Sweet, Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. Western Yellow onions have the most flavonoids, eleven times the amount found in Western White, the variety with the lowest flavonoid content.
For all varieties of onions, the more phenols and flavonoids they contain, the more reputed antioxidant and anti-cancer activity they provide. When tested against liver and colon cancer cells, 'Western Yellow' pungent yellow (New York Bold) and shallots were most effective in inhibiting their growth. The milder-tasting cultivars (i.e., 'Western White,' 'Peruvian Sweet,' 'Empire Sweet,' 'Mexico,' 'Texas 1015,' 'Imperial Valley Sweet,' and 'Vidalia') showed little cancer-fighting ability.
Shallots and ten other onion (Allium cepa L.) varieties commonly available in the United States were evaluated: Western Yellow, Northern Red, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Empire Sweet, Mexico, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. In general, the most pungent onions delivered many times the benefits of their milder cousins.
3-mercapto-2-methylpentan-1-ol in onion was found to have an antioxidant potent that inhibits peroxynitrite induced diseases.
Eye irritation
As onions are sliced or eaten, cells are broken, allowing enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. A specific sulfenic acid, 1-propenesulfenic acid, formed when onions are cut, is rapidly rearranged by a second enzyme, called the lachrymatory factor synthase or LFS, giving syn-propanethial-S-oxide, a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor or LF. The LF gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. Tear glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant (Chemicals that exhibit such an effect on the eyes are known as lachrymatory agents).
Supplying ample water to the reaction while peeling onions prevents the gas from reaching the eyes. Eye irritation can, therefore, be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Another way to reduce irritation is by chilling, or by not cutting off the root of the onion (or by doing it last), as the root of the onion has a higher concentration of enzymes. Using a sharp blade to chop onions will limit the cell damage and the release of enzymes that drive the irritation response. Chilling or freezing onions prevents the enzymes from activating, limiting the amount of gas generated. Eye irritation can also be avoided by having a fan blow the gas away from the eyes as the onion is being cut.
It is also possible to avoid eye irritation by wearing goggles or any eye protection that creates a seal around the eye. Contact lens wearers can experience less immediate irritation as a result of the slight protection afforded by the lenses themselves. It may also be that lens wearers are familiar with controlling the more reflexive actions of their eyes with regards to irritation, to prevent blinking, as this is an ability they require when manipulating the lenses.
The amount of sulfenic acids and LF released, and the irritation effect, differs among Allium species. On January 31, 2008, the New Zealand Crop and Food institute created a strain of "no tears" onions by using gene-silencing biotechnology to prevent synthesis by the onions of the lachrymatory factor synthase enzyme.
Storage
Green onion and leeks are optimally stored refrigerated. Cooking onions and sweet onions, on the other hand, can be stored at room temperature, optimally in a single layer, in mesh bag in a dry, cool, dark, well ventilated location. In this environment, cooking onions have a shelf life of 3 to 4 weeks, and sweet onions 1 to 2 weeks. Cooking onions will absorb odours from apples and pears. Also, they draw moisture from vegetables they are stored with which may cause them to decay. Sweet onions have a greater water and sugar content than cooking onions. This makes them sweeter and milder tasting, but also reduces their shelf life. Sweet onions can also be stored refrigerated, where they have a shelf life of approximately 1 month, optimally uncovered. Irrespective of type, any cut pieces of onion are optimally tightly wrapped, stored away from other produce, and used within 2 to 3 days.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onion

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