Garlic Takes a Hit but Backers Are Unfazed

Garlic cloves.

A study finds that garlic doesn't have the power to lower cholesterol. iStockPhoto.com hide caption

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Chef Nino Bruzzo is 68 years old. But he says memories of his boyhood can come back instantly with one smell.

"I grow up in Italy — my mother she usually cook. And I grow up with the smell, the garlic," he says.

Which is now the smell that fills the kitchen of Luigi's, the Washington, D.C., restaurant he runs with his brother. As he stirs fresh garlic into a pan of olive oil, he says it's the foundation of a lot of Luigi's dishes, from the calamari to the sauteed mushrooms.

As he was growing up, his mom filled his plate with these garlicky foods — but she also filled his head with the idea that garlic keeps you healthy.

"I hear my grandmother, my mother [say] — is good for your blood pressure — and good for your stomach," he says.

These sorts of claims date back at least 2,000 years. And the first batch of scientitic studies done in the 1980s seemed to confirm the folklore. They suggested that garlic protects the heart by lowering LDL or bad cholesterol in the blood.

But they were wrong. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that neither cloves of garlic nor garlic supplements can lower bad cholesterol.

Many of the early studies were paid for by companies that sell garlic supplements.

"Most of the trials in general were of poor quality," says Stanford nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner. "They weren't big enough. They weren't long enough. They didn't do it scientifically rigorous enough."

With grant money from the National Institutes of Health, Gardner and his team enrolled about 200 middle-aged volunteers. All had moderately high levels of cholesterol, but were not taking medicines to treat it.

Gardner says his first hurdle was getting the volunteers to eat the stuff.

"How do you give people in a research study raw garlic six days a week for six months? That was the question we faced in the beginning," he says. "And we really didn't want to do it unless we used raw garlic, because we thought this should be the gold standard."

They decided to mash up the garlic into a condiment spread. And then put exactly one clove's worth of garlic spread onto each of nearly 30,000 gourmet sandwiches.

Gardner says some of the volunteers weren't eating the sandwiches but were instead asked to take a garlic supplement every day. Others took placebo pills.

At the end of the study, it turns out that nobody had lower cholesterol.

"We were so disappointed because nothing happened," Gardner says. "The real garlic didn't work, and neither of the pills worked. And it wasn't that they worked a little, and it wasn't statistically significant. There was no movement across the entire six months."

Gardner says he was crushed. He really thought fresh garlic would lower bad cholesterol.

But because it doesn't, he says he'll move on, and maybe check to see whether there are some anti-bacterial benefits — or perhaps an anti-inflammatory effect that helps the body.

As for chef Nino Bruzzo, he still thinks his mother and grandmother were right. Garlic brings out the very best in food.

He says even if garlic won't do much for your heart, it's definitely good for your soul.

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