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Is That Right? Onions and garlic fight swine flu?

Soldiers serving the small former Soviet country Moldova are being fed extra garlic and onions in hopes that those foods will help fend off swine flu.

Is that really likely to help keep them healthy?

The Associated Press reports that 24 out of 6,500 Moldovan soldiers have come down with H1N1 influenza in the past two weeks. To stem the tide of sickness, the army is adding the equivalent of a small onion and a few cloves of garlic to their daily diets.

The country apparently received a supply of H1N1 influenza vaccine earlier this month. It's not clear whether any of that was allocated to the armed forces.

As I wrote a few months ago, vaccination is the best defense against influenza. Experts I interviewed noted that, while maintaining a healthful diet, level of physical activity and sleep schedule can help keep your immune system in shape so it's prepared to fight infections such as influenza, there are no magical foods that specifically fend off the flu.

Garlic (and, to a lesser extent, onions, which are relatives in the Allium family) has long been believed to possess immunity-boosting and other health-promoting properties. Recent research suggests that the chemical allicin, which garlic contains in spades, releases sulfenic acid, a strong antioxidant, when it decomposes. (This is why experts recommend crushing garlic before eating or cooking with it.) Those antioxidants may help keep us healthy by interfering with the ability of roaming oxygen cells, known as free radicals, to damage our cells.

Unfortunately, scientific research into garlic's capacity to keep us healthy has been quite limited. What little there is suggests that garlic might reduce the length or severity of a cold. But there's nothing to show that garlic has any power over influenza, of the H1N1 variety or any other.

Which is not to say that garlic and onions aren't excellent foods. The former contains such good-for-you nutrients as manganese, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C and selenium; onions provide chromium (which helps our bodies use insulin), Vitamin C and several other antioxidant flavonoids. And both can make healthful dishes more appealing by adding lots of pungent flavor.

I just hope those Moldovan soldiers are being issued breath mints, too.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Influenza , Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  
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It might work. Feeding them a lot of garlic and onions is more likely to keep them far away from each other, thus minimizing the probability of contagion.

Posted by: ogs123 | November 20, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

But -- garlic DOES give one protection against Vampires!

Posted by: jdrd58 | November 20, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

There is no evidence that garlic combats the flu. But it may lower your blood pressure or cholesterol.

Posted by: rlatkany | November 23, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

My family went through the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic in a town with a very high mortality rate without losing any lives to the disease--they attributed it to eating raw onion sandwiches--and the onions lined up on the windowsill to keep out the flu.

This sounds superstitious and whimsical, but I've read books on the pandemic that reported a lot of anecdotal evidence that high consumption of onions/garlic kept people well.

Posted by: Woodwose | November 26, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

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