WASHINGTON -- Americans are getting a taste for garlic.
Consumption of garlic, once shunned as the ''stinking rose,'' more than tripled during the 1990s because of its growing popularity in foods and as a dietary supplement or herbal remedy, the government says.
''It had a bad reputation. People shied away from it or didn't put it in food because it was supposed to give you bad breath,'' said Roberta Dowling, who runs a Cambridge, Mass., cooking school.
''Now chefs realize the attributes of using garlic and how it can do wonderful things for food.''
Americans consumed 3.1 pounds of garlic per person in 1999, compared with 1 pound in 1989, the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service reports.
To meet that demand, acreage devoted to domestic production of garlic rose during the decade from 16,000 acres to 41,000 acres, or about 64 square miles.
Christopher Ranch, a California farm that accounts for 10 percent of the nation's acreage, has increased annual production from 10 million pounds to 60 million pounds.
''Garlic-flavored everything is everywhere in the grocery store,'' said Patsy Ross, a spokeswoman for the farm.
Garlic, like broccoli, is increasingly viewed by consumers as a ''functional food'' with special nutritional benefits, the USDA report said. ''Garlic has proven itself as a popular food and nutrition item and is gaining scientific credibility as a significant contributor to good health,'' the report said.
Besides livening up recipes -- the herb long has been popular in Italian, Chinese and other ethnic cuisines -- research suggests that garlic has a number of potential health benefits. Garlic contains nutrients such as vitamins A and C. But one of the most important ingredients is believed to be allicin, a sulfur-bearing compound that gives garlic its pungent aroma.
Studies have found that garlic can be an effective anti-coagulant to prevent blood clots and strokes -- so much so that patients are advised to warn their doctors that they are taking it -- and also lower blood cholesterol levels. Other research indicates it could help prevent colon, stomach and prostate cancer, and scientists are studying its effect on memory and the immune system.
Interest in garlic has been so high that Cornell University Medical Center set up a toll-free telephone number several years ago to field questions about it.
''Garlic does have some interesting effects on a variety of body processes. How significant they are still needs to be explored,'' said Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Chefs are using garlic in a wide range of foods and condiments, said Dowling, who runs the cooking school. Half the recipes in her school's 15-week course on basic food preparation contain garlic.
Particularly popular is a puree of roasted garlic, which can be added to stews and soups or used in salad dressings and meat rubs, Dowling said. ''Roasted garlic is something you never saw 20, 25 years ago.''
Some adventuresome chefs even convert it into caramel and use it in desserts.
It is no accident, by the way, that garlic is popular in countries with warm climates. Humans began using garlic and similar herbs, such as onions, to kill bacteria and other food-borne pathogens that proliferate most readily in warm weather, Cornell researchers say.
Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano kill all bacteria, and several other spices, including cinnamon and thyme, can destroy 80 percent of the microbes, the scientists said.
On the Net:
Economic Research Service: http://www.ers.usda.gov
Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayohealth.org
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