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Pungent onions are loaded with nutritional goodness

Editor’s note:  This column will appear in Healthy Living on Sunday, May 6, 2012.

BY JENNIFER MOTL

The basis  of delectable dishes worldwide, onions also have a surprising capacity to shield against cancer.

Often overshadowed by more colorful veggies, humble onions nonetheless play a supporting role in favorite foods around the world, from chili to guacamole and almost all gourmet French and Italian sauces. And caramelized onions are savored in most cuisines.

When measured by how many tons are grown, onions are the second most popular veggie on the planet, surpassed only by tomatoes.

Onions’ versatility may be the reason they are so prized. Ancient people in China, Egypt, Rome and Israel all ate onions. By the Middle Ages, Europeans were using onions not just as food but also as wedding gifts and rent payments, according to the National Onion Association!

PUNGENT AND NUTRITIOUS

Onions are one of the first veggies available in spring—packed with fresh flavor and a good buy at the farmers market right now.

Celebrated for their pungently delicious flavor, onions pack a surprising amount of nutrition per bulb. Onions are a fairly good source of vitamin C for a vegetable—a cup of onions provides about 20 percent of your daily value. A cup also has 3 grams of fiber and 10 percent of your needs for vitamin B6.

Beyond vitamins, onions also provide antioxidants. They are particularly rich in quercetin, also found in tea and apples. Quercetin has been linked to lower risks of heart attacks and several cancers. And red and yellow onions also contain anthocyanins, another protective chemical.

Beyond the nutrients that onions themselves contain, onions actually help the body absorb minerals from other foods. Indian researchers found people absorbed more iron and zinc from grains and beans that were prepared with onions.

ONIONS PROTECT HEALTH

Onion lovers have lower rates of cancers of the stomach, colon and prostate, according to some studies comparing folks who eat the most and least amount of onions.

Like some other seasonings, onions also are mildly antibacterial and antifungal. That means cooking with onions may slightly reduce the risk of food poisoning, though you still need to wash your hands and cook foods properly.

Onions may protect the heart by reducing unwanted blood clots. And Japanese researchers say they’ve found protective compounds from onions in the aorta, the body’s largest artery, like a superhighway from the heart to the rest of the body.

Surprisingly, onions may strengthen bones despite their lack of vitamin D and calcium. Older women who consume onions daily may reduce their risk of hip fracture by more than 20 percent compared to women who avoid onions, according to researchers at Medical University of South Carolina.

HANDLE WITH CARE

Raw onions can make your eyes water, but cooked right, will make your mouth water.

You may wonder how to keep your breath and hands sweet when handling onions. If you’re worried about your breath, choose cooked onions rather than raw ones.

If you can’t resist raw onions, consider freshening your breath afterward by munching on a sprig of parsley or sipping water with a lemon wedge, suggest the experts at the National Onion Association. Lemon juice can also remove onion odor from your hands.

SAVING THE NUTRIENTS

While all fresh onions contain beneficial flavanoids like quercetin, smaller onions were more concentrated sources, according to Korean researchers.

They also found how we cook onions affects flavanoids. Fried onions had 33 percent less. Sautéing, boiling or steaming onions reduced flavanoids by 14 to 21 percent. Microwaving caused a 4 percent loss. Baking was the best method—no flavanoids were lost.

I found a fabulously easy recipe for roasted onions. Here it is, adapted from Cooking in the Moment by Andrea Reusing. Plonk whole, unpeeled onions on a cookie sheet and roast at 425 degrees for an hour or until skins are brown and blistered and inside is tender when poked with a knife. You can slice the tops off onions and serve in their skins if you like. I prefer to slice the tops and bottoms off the onions. Then the skins slip off in one piece.

I tried the recipe last week, and one hour of baking produced juicy, translucent savory-sweet onions. This recipe is by far one of the laziest and best-tasting ways to cook a veggie—a happy combination. Next time, I think I’ll try roasting the onions even longer to see if they caramelize slightly.

Whether you use onions as the basis of a sauce or as a starring dish on their own, they are one of the most savory and nourishing veggies around.

Jennifer Motl is a registered  dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now  lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at healthyliving@freelancestar.com.

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