Onions are renowned for being complex in form. When the top green parts of the onion plant wither away in the winter, the fleshy leaf bases are left behind forming what we call the onion. The onion ‘rings” are the bottom portion of its leaves. The onion’s peelable layers are formed with the oldest, having less flesh and becoming the papery outer layers, protecting the tender new growth in the center. This is where the onion plant stores carbohydrates (similar to a bulb). Onions are members of the Allium genus of flowering plants that also includes garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives.
Onions come in several forms and types with all having healthy benefits from the vitamins, minerals, and other plant-based antioxidants. In fact, the medicinal properties of onions have been recognized since ancient times, when they were used to treat ailments like headaches, heart disease and mouth sores.
The red onion (also known as purple onion or Spanish onion) is a root vegetable that features purple skin with white and red inner meat. Red onions have a mild flavor with a slightly sweet taste. In the US, the most popular form of red onion is from Connecticut, specifically the Wethersfield red onion. Red onions have achieved the classification of being a superfood. This is thanks to their nutrient dense, low calorie (44 calories but 5 times that in vitamins minerals and fiber), and diverse range of health benefits. For example, a small red onion will meet 10% of a person’s daily need for vitamin C. It also contains oxylipins which help regulate blood fat levels and lower bad cholesterol. It has high levels of a substance called quercetin which can help relieve inflammation and relax airways in asthma sufferers (red onion has long been used by many to help treat asthma).
One of quercetin’s metabolites, isorhamnetin, has been shown to have a strong anti-cancer and anti-obesity effect. In one study out of UCLA in 2013, it was shown to have strong effects on pancreatic cancer cell lines in the lab and in animal studies. In another study done by UK researchers it was shown that it could be safely and effectively administered intraveneously (IV) in a study done in 1996. Despite this there is no mention of this flavonoid by the American Cancer Society (ACS) on their website! Other known benefits include helping to fight viruses/ flu, lower blood pressure, relieve allergies and arthritis, protect the liver, and naturally thin the blood. Studies suggest the potent anti-viral activity may help protect you from coronavirus, too. These substances can also be found in cannabis and hemp. It is possible that quercetin supplements can interact with the effectiveness of antibiotics, chemotherapy, and blood-thinner medications so use caution and consult your doctor before using.
Red onions are full of B9, B6, and other b vitamins that help promote a healthy metabolism and weight. They are also a source of calcium to help support strong bones. One substance in them called allicin, has been shown to boost athletic performance and help alleviate muscle soreness from too much exercise. Red onions contain chromium which is used to help the body regulate your blood sugar. They also contain sulfur which helps trigger the production of insulin. This serves to lower levels of sugar in the blood.
Red onions have high concentrations of oligofructose, which is a type of soluble fiber. This is good for digestion and can help relieve constipation. It also promotes the growth of good bacteria in the gut which will help keep you in balance and battle any bad bacteria that enters your system. Oligofructose has also been used for years to help treat certain forms of diarrhea and even to help prevent traveler’s diarrhea. They contain compounds that work as a powerful antibiotic against bacteria such as MRSA, h. Pylori, cholera, e coli and others.
Red onions have been used for centuries to promote hair growth on the scalp. One small study published in the Journal of Dermatology has indicated that applying onion juice to the scalp might help regrow hair in some people. The study involved both male and female participants who had alopecia areata, which is a non-scarring, patchy form of hair loss. Researchers found that hair growth started after 2 weeks of using onion juice, which was applied to the scalp twice daily. Almost 74 percent of the participants had some hair regrowth after 4 weeks, and at 6 weeks about 87 percent experienced hair regrowth. The hair regrowth was higher among males than females.
Peeling away the layers of the onion reveals that the humble onion really is not so humble. Its complex layers conceal several phytonutrients that have widespread health benefits just waiting to be unleashed. So, go ahead and indulge. Add those onions to your salads or burgers and give them an added kick (literally, visually, and medicinally). It is great for your health if not for the breath…. But that is a separate issue for another day.
Written By: Melissa Cornwell