Hello. My name is Onio. Yes, I know, I know, Onio is an odd name. Sounds like I might have been married to a Beatle or something. But as it happens, onio means “one” in Latin, and that Latin word is the source of the word onion – and I just happen to be one – an onion, that is. See? Slightly convoluted, but I think you’ll agree, given who I am, the name’s not so odd after all.
Traces of onion have been found in Bronze Age settlements alongside fig and date stones, dating back to 5000 BC. While the jury’s out on whether those were traces of cultivated onions or some related, wild variety, the Bible mentions onion cultivation as early as around 3000 BC in ancient Egypt. We were there when the pyramids were built. In fact, we were so popular, the Egyptians worshipped us, believing our spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life – archaeologists found traces of onion in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV when his mummy was uncovered.
In ancient Greece, athletes ate us like we were going out of style, convinced we lightened their blood balance, and this would lead to victory on the playing fields. I guess that makes us history’s first performance-enhancing drug! Gladiators rubbed down with us before a busy outing in the ring to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages, we were considered so valuable that people actually paid their rent in onions, and we were often given as gifts (let’s face it: nothing says, “I love you,” quite like the gift of a nice bunch of onions). Doctors on occasion prescribed us to facilitate bowel movements and erections (speaking of performance enhancement!), as well as to help relieve the symptoms of headache and cough, lessen the impact of snakebites, and help slow hair loss. Doctors also prescribed onions in the early 15th century to help with infertility in women – even in dogs, cats, and cattle (we now know that onions are really the last thing you should be feeding to your pets and milk herd).
We cultivated onions were first introduced to North America by no less a personality than Christopher Columbus, in 1492. The European colonists that followed soon discovered that native North Americans used wild onions as seasoning, as a vegetable, in syrups, poultices, and as an ingredient in dyes. These wild varieties never really caught on with the Europeans, however – the Pilgrims planted bulb onions, the sort you’re used to today, just as fast as they could clear some land, back in the mid-1600’s.
First let me explain, once and for all, why most of you end up crying when cutting us. When we’re sliced, cells are broken, generating something called sulphenic acids. These in turn trigger a process that creates a volatile gas, known as LFS. This gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. When this happens, your tear glands do their job, producing tears to dilute and flush out the irritant. Now you know!
Onions (including shallots) contain lots of phenols and flavonoids, and this is what I like to call A Good Thing. My shallot relatives are always quick to remind me they have six times the amount of phenols found in Vidalia onions, the one with the lowest phenolic content. All onions have antioxidant activity, led again by shallots, followed closely by Western Yellow, New York Bold, Northern Red, Mexico, Empire Sweet, and several others, with the Vidalia bringing up the rear.
When tested against liver and colon cancer cells in laboratory studies, Western Yellow, New York Bold, and shallots were the most effective in inhibiting their growth. In general, the most pungent onions delivered many times the effect of their milder cousins. Go bold or go home!
There are wide-ranging claims made for the effectiveness of onions in combating everything from the common cold to heart disease, from diabetes to osteoporosis. All onions contain at least some chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer, antioxidant properties.
In many parts of the world, we are used to heal blisters and boils. If you ever suffer from a dreaded sea urchin wound, you may want to do what a sensible Maltese does, and tie half a baked onion to the affected area overnight (just don’t kick in bed). In Bulgaria, half a baked, sugared onion is placed on finger cuts overnight (make sure you don’t rub your eyes in your sleep). Raw onion is considered by many to be helpful in reducing swelling caused by bee stings. In North America, products that contain onion extract are used in the treatment of topical scars.
Toss in some chromium, vitamin C, manganese, molybdenum, vitamin B6, tryptophan, folate, potassium, phosphorus, copper, and lots of dietary fiber, and suddenly those Egyptians who worshipped us don’t loom as quite so crazy.
Ah, but of course to enjoy the full slate of benefits we bring to the table(!), you’re going to have to eat us. And there are a number of delicious ways to do that, from chopped into your breakfast eggs to using us as a key ingredient in a yummy supper. Try out some of these onion-friendly recipes – you’ll be glad you did!
The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on one- relationship with your family doctor and is not intended as medical advice.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
2 onions (unpeeled), cut into thin slices.
1 clove garlic – finely chopped
1 tbsp (15 ml) butter
2 tsp (10 ml) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp (2 ml) dried marjoram
1/2 tsp (2 ml) pepper
4 cups (960 ml) beef stock
1 tbsp (15 ml) balsamic or red wine vinegar
4 slices French bread
3/4 cup (175 ml) shredded Swiss cheese
In large heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat until starting to bubble. Add onions, garlic, sugar, marjoram, pepper, and salt. Stir with wooden spoon until onions are coated with butter. Cover pan with lid; reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes or until onions are limp. Pour in beef stock and balsamic vinegar; increase heat to high, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, place oven rack on second rung from top. Preheat broiler for 5 minutes. Toast bread in toaster or under broiler until golden brown; set aside. Place 4 ovenproof soup bowls on baking sheet or pan. Ladle soup into bowls. Top with toast slices. Sprinkle cheese evenly over top. Broil for about 3 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and golden.
ONION AND ANCHOVY DIP
Anchovies are a good source of calcium, iron, and phosphorus, protein, niacin, and selenium.
- 2 Tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil
- 1 Spanish onion (or 2 cooking onions), coarsely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 12 anchovy fillets, chopped
- 1-1/2 cups (375 ml) light sour cream
- 1/3 cup (75 ml) cream cheese, softened
- 1/3 cup (75 ml) chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 tsp (1 ml) each salt and pepper
In skillet, heat oil over medium heat; fry onions, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 20 minutes. Add garlic and anchovies; fry, stirring often, until garlic is golden, about 5 minutes. Scrape into bowl; let cool. Meanwhile, in food processor or blender, purée sour cream and cream cheese until smooth. Add onion mixture, parsley, salt and pepper; pulse until onions are finely chopped.
ONION AND SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE
- 3-1/2 lbs (1.75 kg) sweet potatoes (about 4 or 5 large)
- 2 Cups (500 ml) thinly sliced white onions
- 1-1/2 tsp (7 ml) chopped fresh sage (or ¾ tsp/4 ml dried)
- 1 tsp (5 ml) salt
- 1/2 tsp (2 ml) pepper
- 1/4 Cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
Peel and thinly slice sweet potatoes. In greased 8-inch (2 L) square baking dish, lay one-quarter of the potatoes; sprinkle one-third of the onions over top, then sprinkle with one-third of the sage and one-quarter each of the salt and pepper. Repeat twice. Top with final layer of potatoes; pour oil over top, shaking pan to distribute. Sprinkle with the remaining salt and pepper. Cover with foil; bake in 325°F (160°C) oven for 1 hour. Uncover; bake in 375°F (190°C) oven until tender when tested with fork and lightly browned on top, about 40 minutes.
Onions contain an array of B-complex vitamins, including pantothenic acid, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), folates, and thiamin.
Onions are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. They are also a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, and manganese.
Certain phytochemicals in onions have been shown to have both anti-mutagenic (providing cancer protection) and anti-diabetic (helping lower blood sugar levels) properties.
Laboratory studies show that onions may reduce cholesterol production, and have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties.
Allicin, a compound found in onions, decreases blood vessel stiffness, resulting in an overall reduction in blood pressure. Allicin also blocks platelet clot formation and helps decrease overall risk of coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular diseases, and stroke.
Onions are a rich source of chromium, the trace mineral that helps tissue cells respond appropriately to insulin levels in the blood. This helps facilitate insulin action and control sugar levels in diabetics.
Onions are a good source of the antioxidant flavonoid quercetin, which has been found to have anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic properties.