Up Close and Edible: Garlic

Thinking it was good for our hearts, some of us have been adding buckets of garlic to our chicken wings, pasta and anything else we can think of. But researchers now say that these little cloves of pungency aren't as powerful a cardiac protector as once thought.

For years, garlic, a kissing cousin to the onion, was thought to be great at lowering cholesterol levels. But a series of studies over the last several years has discounted that notion. Now a pivotal National Institutes of Health-sponsored study out of Stanford University puts the final kibosh on garlic's once highly touted cholesterol-lowering benefits. And it doesn't even seem to matter whether the garlic is raw, aged, an extract or even a supplement, according to the research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in February.

"I was ready to buy Dr. Garlic license plates," says Christopher Gardner, a Stanford professor of medicine who led the study. "I was somewhat surprised that even the raw garlic didn't have any effect. But the evidence is very clear. Garlic just doesn't work in lowering cholesterol levels."

There is some good news for garlic lovers. This research doesn't rule out garlic's potential benefits in reducing levels of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure (so far, the evidence is mixed) or atherosclerosis (preliminary evidence suggests garlic may actually slow hardening of the arteries). According to the NIH, some studies suggest consuming garlic as a regular part of the diet may lower the risk of certain cancers. However, there haven't been any clinical trials.

Remember that garlic can thin the blood, just like aspirin. If you're a garlic junkie, talk to your doctor if you are planning to have surgery or even dental work, especially if you have a bleeding disorder. Garlic has been shown to interfere with the effectiveness of saquinavir, a drug used to treat HIV infection. Garlic's interaction with other drugs hasn't been well studied.
Gardner is planning another trial to measure garlic's effects on C-reactive protein, one marker that is linked to heart disease. "We don't know all the answers," he says, "and garlic may still play some role in heart disease. But it's clear that it has no role as a cholesterol reducer."
By no means stop eating garlic, especially if you like it. And who doesn't? One proven way to lower cholesterol is to eat a plant-based diet, spiced with garlic goodness. "I love the stuff," says Gardner, "but it's not like you can eat garlic cheese fries and think that you are doing something good for your cholesterol."