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.
These days most people’s minds do not wander to greatness when they think of the onion. Ah, but that was not always the case. There have been many times through the course of time that we have been viewed as a very important vegetable indeed.
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 worshiped 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 worshiped 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.
The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.