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Garlic Takes a Hit but Backers Are Unfazed

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Garlic Takes a Hit but Backers Are Unfazed

Health

Garlic Takes a Hit but Backers Are Unfazed

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The notion that garlic is good for your heart took a hit today. A study in the "Archives of Internal Medicine" finds that neither cloves of garlic nor garlic supplements can lower bad cholesterol. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Chef Nino Bruzzo is 68 years old, but he says memories of his boyhood can come back instantly with one smell.

NINO BRUZZO: I grow up in Italy. My mother, she usually cook, and I grow up with the smell, the garlic.

AUBREY: Which is now the smell that fills the kitchen of Luigi's, the Washington restaurant he runs with his brother. As he stirs a fresh garlic into some olive oil, he says this is the foundation of lots of dishes, from the calamari to the sautéed mushrooms.

BRUZZO: I give it special taste, you know, a flavor. Very good. I love it.

AUBREY: Growing up, he says his mom filled his plate with these garlicky dishes, but she also filled his head with the idea that garlic keeps you healthy.

BRUZZO: I hear my grandmother, my mother: is good for your blood pressure and good for your stomach, you know.

AUBREY: These sorts of claims date back at least 2,000 years, and the first batch of scientific 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. Unfortunately, many of the studies were also sponsored by companies that sell garlic supplements.

CHRISTOPHER GARDNER: Most of the trials in general were of poor quality. They weren't big enough. They weren't long enough. They didn't do it scientifically rigorous enough.

AUBREY: That's Stanford nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner. He and a team decided to take a harder look at garlic's health benefits. With grant money from the National Institutes of Health, they enrolled about 200 middle-aged volunteers, all of whom 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.

GARDNER: How do you give people in a research study raw garlic six days a week for six months? That was the question that we faced in the beginning, and we really didn't want to do it unless we could use raw garlic, because we thought that should be the gold standard.

AUBREY: 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: So this is a portabella, and this is an eggplant, and it's a salmon patty, and it's a veggie burger on a whole-grain bun, and we even went to the length of having the biochemists look at the active ingredients of the raw garlic in the condiment after being in a refrigerator for one, two and three days.

AUBREY: Just to be certain that the active ingredients hadn't lost their punch. Gardner says some of the volunteers who were not eating the sandwiches were instead asked to take a garlic supplement every day, while others were asked to swallow a placebo pill. At the end of the study, it turns out that nobody had lower cholesterol, not the gourmet sandwich eaters or the supplement takers.

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

AUBREY: Gardner says personally, he was crushed. He really thought fresh garlic would lower bad cholesterol, but since it doesn't, he says he'll move on and maybe check to see if there are some antibacterial 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.

BRUZZO: Everything, I think, you add the garlic. Not too much. You have a little bit more; you have a little bit less.

AUBREY: Even if garlic won't do much for your heart, he says it's definitely good for your soul. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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