Under my byline

Onion leap for mankind

Posted in Diet, Health by Rrishi on 10 February 2008

Red onionsThe noble onion has an ancient pedigree, and deserves to be worshipped

Being human, we can’t help looking for meaning in everything around us. Even humble vegetables become symbols. The onion, however, is not a humble vegetable — it’s older than civilisation (the earliest evidence of cultivation is from 5,000-year-old Bronze Age settlements, but it must have been with us far longer). It is so aristocratic, in fact, that experts doubt there is any such thing as a “wild onion” left.

The onion has also commanded the best class of biographer over the millennia, from the ancient Egyptians who painted onions on the walls of royal tombs to the composers of the oldest Vedic texts, the Greeks Herodotus and Dioscorides, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, Charaka of the Charaka Samhita, and so forth up to the present day (when governments rise and fall in response to onion prices).

Apart from the amazing health-giving properties of the onion, which each of the above affirms (and exaggerates), the onion is marvellously designed to appeal to the human psyche. It is almost a sphere, and thus approximates the most perfect shape. It has layers — circles within circles. It comes from the earth and is full of water. It is lined longitudinally.

No wonder the ancient Egyptians worshipped the onion, presenting as it did a vision of the cosmos, and suggesting eternal life (the endless circle). Onions have been found wrapped up with mummies, alongside just about any part of the body. Most gruesome, the mummy of the pharaoh Rameses IV wore an onion in each of the empty eye sockets. Experts speculate that the Egyptians believed the onion’s powerful smell would restore breath to the dead in the afterlife.

Ancient Greek athletes are known to have eaten pounds of onions and drunk onion juice before the games, and rubbed onions over their bodies to strengthen their muscles — as did Roman gladiators. And today we too should guzzle onions likewise, because they can offset the damage we do to ourselves with our generally unhealthy, stressful lives.

Different chemicals in onions have proven anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol and anti-cancer effects; and onions (the more pungent the better) contain quercetin, a potent antioxidant, in generous quantities. Thus a diet rich in onions — raw or cooked — boosts immunity and reduces the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even osteoporosis, which makes it especially useful for older women. Eat onions and you’ll live longer, even if your breath triggers fire alarms.

In 19th-century Britain, the increased availability of nutritious foods, including onions, shrank the health gap between rich and poor and heralded huge social changes. It was a step in our cultural evolution.

Having been with us so long, however, have onions, and other similarly ancient foods, had an effect on our biological evolution as well?

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