Garlic, onions and chives – oh my! The allure of allium vegetables

here are certain foods that simply stand out as a nutrient-rich, healthy food.  But then, there are those more subtle, less charismatic foods that are just as beneficial in promoting your health but without all the fanfare.  This is where allium vegetables come to mind.  Forget about those other plant-based foods flashing bright, pretty colors or having a pleasing, sweet taste, these low-key vegetables may be humble but are nevertheless an important part of a healthy diet.

Allium foods are a family of vegetables of the genus Allium, which include garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions and chives.  Many of us may use them daily in cooking but without realizing the robust nutritional bang they are providing.  Unlike the more prominent “superfoods” such as berries and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), allium vegetables are usually inexpensive, have a long shelf life whether refrigerated or not and appear to be just as powerful in reducing various chronic diseases. 

The all-inclusive nutritional nudge allium vegetables pack is in their variety of nutrients and phytochemicals that include anti-cancer compounds of quercetin, allixin and organosulfur compounds of allicin, alliin and allyl sulfides.   These same compounds are what give allium vegetables their characteristic smell, taste and the ability to make you cry when cutting onions. With this kind of mixture of phytochemicals and flavonols combined, allium vegetables are a must to consume.

Allium vegetables and prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer men die from after lung cancer.  Even though the cause of prostate cancer is largely unknown, environmental factors appear to be one piece of the puzzle with food choices affecting prostate cancer incidence.  A meta-analysis in 2013 found that a high consumption of allium vegetables, especially garlic, was related to a low occurrence of prostate cancer.  Even though there were limitations to the study, it seemed the high content of organosulfur and flavonol compounds had a protective effect on inhibiting cell cycle progression in prostate cancer cells and tumor inhibitory properties. 

Allium vegetables boost ability to absorb certain minerals

Some plant food sources contain the minerals iron and zinc; however, our ability to absorb iron and zinc from plant foods is limited. For individuals such as vegans, this can pose the problem of obtaining sufficient amounts of these critical nutrients in order to avoid a deficiency.  Past experiments on animals have shown sulfur-containing amino acids improved the absorption of these trace minerals. In this 2010 study, it was shown that adding the sulfur-rich allium vegetables of onions and garlic to food grains vastly improved the rate of iron and zinc absorption into the body. 

Allium vegetables and heart health

Both garlic and onions have a reputation for being beneficial for your heart health.  Garlic particularly shines when it comes to helping relax smooth muscles and dilate blood vessels to reduce blood pressure.  Onions contain the phytochemical quercetin that has also been shown to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.  Other members of the allium family have varying degrees of their potential for heart health ranging from lowering “bad” cholesterol, preventing atherosclerosis, and reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

Allium vegetables and osteoporosis

Who would guess eating onions can strengthen your bones?  A 2009 study demonstrated just that.  Women who consumed onions at least once a day had a 5% greater bone density than women who consumed onions once a month or less.  In addition, women 50 years of age or older and who consumed onions frequently had a 20% decreased risk of a hip fracture when compared to women who never ate onions. 

How to use allium vegetables

Adding allium vegetables to recipes is a great way to pack in valuable nutrients.  Chopped or crushed allium vegetables can be mixed into homemade vinaigrettes or marinades, added to guacamole, pasta sauce or sautéed with vegetables.  Once you slice or crush allium vegetables, wait 10 to 15 minutes before adding to a recipe – this allows powerful compounds to form without losing them right away during cooking. 

Allium Vegetable


Culinary Suggestions


More like an herb than a vegetable, chives are hollow, thin, green stalks

Use as a garnish over garlic toast or baked potato, or as a seasoning in sauces, casseroles and side dishes


Pungent in flavor and aroma, this bulb is often used as a seasoning

Add to homemade hummus, toss into pasta dishes or vegetable/meats


Similar to large scallions, they have a small bulb and long, green stalks with a mild, onion-like flavor

Add to soups, roast with potatoes, and cook with rice


Most widely cultivated of alliums, these layered bulbs come in many varieties, such as white, yellow, or red

Use raw in sandwiches and salads, saute and add to casseroles, soups,  and side dishes


Also known as green onions, scallions are long, slender green stalks, stemming from a small white bulb

Use as a garnish on soups, salads, and pasta dishes; add to stir-frys, Asian-inspired dishes, and tacos


Grown in clusters with several bulbs, they have coppery skins and off-white flesh with a mild, sweet flavor

Delicious added to salad dressings or side dishes, or sautéed over low heat on the stove

Source: Environmental Nutrition

Starting today, add in allium vegetables to your diet and discover for yourself the limitless options they have and how these unassuming vegetables can improve your health.