Science Has The Answer
Ah, garlic! The bulbous plant of the onion genus scientifically known as allium sativum. It is also known, like its close relatives onions, shallots, leeks, and chives, as stinky. Often called “the stinking rose,” the old joke goes that you should always eat garlic with someone you love – that way you can still stand one another afterward.
Stinkiness aside, garlic is good for you. Research says garlic may help lower blood pressure and may also help lower the risk of certain cancers. And there's the fact that garlic is simply delicious.
Back in less politically correct days, garlic was pejoratively called “Italian perfume.” That slur is based on the erroneous assertion that Italians are heavy users of garlic. They're not. In fact, a lot of Italians don't use it at all. In her seminal work, Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking, the late, great, Marcella Hazan states, “There are some Italians who shun garlic, and many dishes at home and in restaurants are prepared without it.” Indeed, garlic is mostly a Southern Italian ingredient. You'd be hard pressed to find even a trace of it in many Northern dishes. But the myth persists. And so does the issue of garlic breath.
Regardless of ethnicity, when somebody loads up on garlic, you can tell it a mile away. And even if you like the stuff, it can be an odor that is off-putting, to say the least. Despite my Northern Italian roots, I happen to like garlic. Give me a nice dish of spaghetti aglio e olio and I'm a happy camper. I use garlic in a lot of my sauces and preparations, but I also use it in very sparing and balanced proportions. Even so, because garlic can be an overpowering component, lingering garlic breath sometimes still occurs. So what can you do about it? Science, my friends, has the answer.
Body chemistry differs greatly and some people can process garlic quickly and relatively odorlessly. Other people, not so much. You've probably run into a few of those in elevators or on airplanes. It's not just a matter of your mouth; your stomach is involved, too. Since undigested bits of garlic in your stomach can continue to produce a “garlicky” smell for quite sometime, simply brushing your teeth or rinsing with mouthwash often won't do the trick. You've got to neutralize the volatiles in your stomach before they can make it to your bloodstream and into your lungs, to be unpleasantly exhaled as much as twenty-four hours later.
A small study conducted at Ohio State University and published in Food Chemistry and in the Journal of Food Science reveals that certain foods contain the chemical keys to neutralizing garlic breath. According to researchers, compounds and enzymes found in raw apples, raw lettuce, and mint leaves react with the chemicals that create garlic breath. Apples, lettuce and mint leaves are high in phenolic compounds, antioxidants that react directly with the volatile sulfur compounds that cause garlic breath. Those foods are also high in polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme that causes browning in fruits and vegetables. And they contain reductase, an enzyme that helps catalyze the breakdown of organic compounds. Indications are that the enzymes speed up the reaction between the phenolic compounds and the garlic vapors, thereby effectively neutralizing said aromatic vapors. Bye-bye garlic breath.
You've got to admire one of the co-authors in this venture. She really took one for the team. Rita Mirondo munched a whole clove of raw garlic for twenty-five seconds. That would have ended the study for me right there. Then she washed it down with a little cool water that served as the control treatment. She did this every day for several days, following the garlic with either Fuji apples (raw, juiced, or heated), iceberg lettuce (raw or heated), spearmint leaves (raw, juiced, or heated), and hot green tea.
Over the course of the subsequent hour, her colleagues employed a spectrometer to measured the levels of common garlic-breath compounds, such as diallyl disulfide and allyl methyl sulfide, and to test the effects of the various foods and drinks on her reeking breath. The effects of the raw apples and lettuce and the mint leaves were most dramatic. The microwaved test foods, the apple and mint juices, and the hot green tea did less for Rita's breath, but still had some effect. The theory is that the raw foods contain more active enzymes than the cooked ones.
So here's the trick: do as the Italians do and eat a lettuce-based salad after your garlicky main course. Or eat a dessert that contains raw diced or sliced apples. If you can work a little mint in there, so much the better. Or you can just munch on some after dinner mint leaves. Even a postprandial mint tea would help. Or snack on an apple.
The researchers involved admit this was a very small study and a lot of room remains for further exploration. For example, they're planning to evaluate different varieties of mint in the next round of testing. Eventually they are hoping to develop a pill for halitosis, which, if they are successful, should certainly qualify them for the Nobel prize. In the meantime, although an apple a day may keep the doctor away, it will certainly help keep everybody else closer after you've consumed a nice plateful of shrimp scampi or something.
Anybody up for a Waldorf salad?