When Louis Pasteur put onions to the test in the mid-1800s, he discovered they were antibacterial – this is, they would kill many disease-causing bacteria.

My mother didn’t need Louis Pasteur to tell her this about onions. From the old country, she brought some strange beliefs about onions and their curative powers. Onion and vinegar drinks for head colds and flu; onion and goose grease compressed for chest colds; raw onions for sore throats; rub a raw onion on a sore joint. Name the malady and there was an onion treatment and some mumbo jumbo and superstitions to go with it.

My mother said she learned about the medicinal power of onions and other foods from Gypsies in the Kent countryside. The Gypsies also taught her to tell fortunes with tea leaves – she was amazingly accurate at this – and filled her head with superstitions she took as gospel.

Some of these superstitions concerned medicinal foods and once, for a high school project, I wrote many of them down. I still have the paper – which got an F and a note from my teacher about not having time to “read this nonsense” – and I decided to dig it out after completing last week’s column about flavonoids and food folklore. From that paper, here’s some of the old Gypsy folklore about foods, along with brief updates on the “miracles medicines” scientists believe may be found in fruits and vegetables.

“I’ve already mentioned some of the folklore about using onions to treat colds and other ailments. Most of this was pure superstition and nonsense. However, onions may be a powerful medicinal plant. Researchers believe onions may be effective in lowering cholesterol, lowering blood sugar and possibly contain ingredients that fend off cancer. Researchers have already confirmed that an ingredient in onions blocked cancer in test animals.

Beans – the Gypsy belief is that beans boiled with garlic will cure persistent coughs. Today researchers believe that various types of beans contain chemicals that inhibit cancer, lower blood pressure and reduce the “bad type” blood cholesterol.

Carrots – the old belief is that carrots will help “bad nerves”, poor eyesight, asthma and skin problems. A 1981 study examined the eating habits of 2,000 male smokers over a 19-year period and found that those who ate the least carrots were more cancer prone. This study also found that the beta-carotene in carrots may help repair cell damage after a person has stopped smoking.

Cabbage – a plant the Gypsies and the ancient Greeks and Romans revered and it may be one of the true stars of the food pharmacy. The ancient Greeks used cabbage leaves to treat wounds. In ancient Rome, the cabbage was used to treat a variety of diseases. In colonial days, the cabbage was used to treat scurvy, gout, rheumatism, tuberculosis, asthma, gangrene, diseases of the eye, sore gums and what-have-you.

Yes, say modern day researchers, the cabbage could be good medicine. There are hints that cabbage eaten on a regular basis contributes to longevity and general health. One year-long survey (1986) found that people who ate cabbage had the lowest death rate from all causes. Even fermented cabbage, sauerkraut, had the same health benefits, the survey found.

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