Onion is a term used for many plants in the genus Allium. They are known by the common name "onion" but, used without qualifiers, it usually refers to Allium cepa. Allium cepa is also known as the 'garden onion' or 'bulb' onion and 'shallot'.
Allium cepa is known only in cultivation, but related wild species occur in Central Asia. The most closely-related species include Allium vavilovii Popov & Vved. and Allium asarense R.M. Fritsch & Matin from Iran. However Zohary and Hopf warn that "there are doubts whether the vavilovii collections tested represent genuine wild material or only feral derivatives of the crop.
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack. These are often served as a side serving in fish and chip shops throughout the United Kingdom. Onions are widely-used in India, and are fundamental to Indian cooking. They are commonly used as a base for curries, or made into a paste and eaten as a main course or as a side dish.
When eaten raw, onions may irritate the stomach. When that happens, milk is effective in neutralizing the effects.
The onion is easily propagated, transported and stored. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped it, believing that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials as evidenced by onion traces being found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV. They believed that if buried with the dead, the strong scent of onions would bring breath back to the dead.
In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of onion because it was believed that it would lighten the balance of blood. Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onion to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages onions were such an important food that people would pay for their rent with onions and even give them as gifts. Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erection, and also to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss. The onion was introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition to Hispaniola. Onions were also prescribed by doctors in the early 1500s to help with infertility in women, and even dogs and cattle and many other household pets. However, recent evidence has shown that dogs, cats, and other animals should not be given onions in any form, due to toxicity during digestion.
Wide-ranging claims have been made for the effectiveness of onions against conditions ranging from the common cold to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. They contain chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant properties such as quercetin. However, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that increased consumption of onions is directly linked to health benefits. Some studies have shown that increased consumption of onions reduces the risk of head and neck cancers. In India some sects don't eat onion due to its Aphrodisiac properties.
In many parts of the world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. A traditional Maltese remedy for sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight. In the morning, the spikes will be in the onion. In the United States, products that contain onion extract are used in the treatment of topical scars; some studies have found their action to be ineffective, while others found that they may act as an anti-inflammatory or bacteriostatic and can improve collagen organization in rabbits.
An American chemist has stated that the pleiomeric chemicals in onions have the potential to alleviate or prevent sore throat.
As onions are sliced, cells are broken, allowing enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. Sulphenic acids are unstable and spontaneously rearrange into a volatile gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it reacts with the water to form a diluted solution of sulphuric acid. This acid irritates the nerve endings in the eye, making them sting. Tear glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.
Supplying ample water to the reaction while peeling onions prevents the gas from reaching the eyes. Eye irritation can, therefore, be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Rinsing the onion and leaving it wet while chopping may also be effective. Another way to avoid irritation is by not cutting off the root of the onion, or by doing it last, as the root of the onion has a higher concentration of enzymes. Using a sharp blade to chop onions will limit the cell damage and the release of enzymes that drive the irritation response. Chilling or freezing onions prevents the enzymes from activating, limiting the amount of gas generated. The volume of sulfenic acids released, and the irritation effect, differs among Allium species.
Onions may be grown from seed or, more commonly today, from sets started from seed the previous year. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed very thickly one year, resulting in stunted plants which produce very small bulbs. These bulbs are very easy to set out and grow into mature bulbs the following year, but they have the reputation of producing a less durable bulb than onions grown directly from seed and thinned.
Seed-bearing onions are day-length sensitive; their bulbs begin growing only after the number of daylight hours has surpassed some minimal quantity. Most traditional European onions are what is referred to as "long-day" onions, producing bulbs only after 15+ hours of daylight occur. Southern European and north African varieties are often known as "intermediate day" types, requiring only 12-13 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. Finally, "short-day" onions, which have been developed in more recent times, are planted in mild-winter areas in the fall and form bulbs in the early spring, requiring only 9-10 hours of sunlight to stimulate bulb formation.
Either planting method may be used to produce spring onions or green onions, which are the leaves and/or immature plants. Green onion is a name also used to refer to another species, Allium fistulosum, the Welsh onion, which is said not to produce dry bulbs.
Shallots and ten other onion (Allium cepa L.) varieties commonly available in the United States were evaluated: Western Yellow, Northern Red, New York Bold, Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Empire Sweet, Mexico, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. In general, the most pungent onions delivered many times the benefits of their milder cousins.
Shallots have the most phenols, six times the amount found in Vidalia onion, the variety with the lowest phenolic content. Shallots also have the most antioxidant activity, followed by Western Yellow, New York Bold, Northern Red, Mexico, Empire Sweet, Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. Western Yellow onions have the most flavonoids, eleven times the amount found in Western White, the variety with the lowest flavonoid content.
For all varieties of onions, the more phenols and flavonoids they contain, the more antioxidant and anti-cancer activity they provide. When tested against liver and colon cancer cells, Western Yellow, New York Bold and shallots were most effective in inhibiting their growth. The milder-tasting varieties—Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Empire Sweet, Mexico, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia—showed little cancer-fighting ability.
|Top Ten Onions Producers — 2005|
UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
"Allium cepa"= in Romanian: "ceapă".