Onions – the Unsung Hero of Healthy Eating


“The onion and its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables and is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can be said to have a soul.” -- Charles Dudley Warner, ‘My Summer in a Garden’ (1871)

Onions may or may not have a soul, but they do provide substantial health benefits. Part of the Allium family of vegetables, onions, along with garlic, leeks, shallots, scallions and chives, have shown they help reduce cancer risks, contribute to heart health, aid digestion, protect brain tissue, and strengthen bones.

Nutrition studies suggest eating more onions and other Allium vegetables is linked to lower risks for stomach, colon and prostate cancers. Onions contain antioxidants, including high levels of quercetin, a flavonoid found to prevent cancer risk by detoxifying cells, slowing tumor growth, and suppressing the spread of cancer cells. The quercetin flavonoid may also offset damage to muscles and brain tissue.  A 2009 study of women who ate onions daily showed they had greater bone density, and older women had a 20 percent lower risk of hip fractures.

Onions contain sulfur compounds called “allyl sulfides” that not only produce their notorious odor, but also some of their healthful advantages.  Allyl sulfides combine with onion’s quercetin to help protect the body’s network of blood vessels from damage caused by cholesterol.  The beneficial bulbs are rich in fructans, a type of carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic promoting growth of good, immune-boosting bacteria, which improves digestion and relieves constipation. 

So, how to work this healthy vegetable into your daily diet?  Try to eat one serving of an Allium vegetable per day -- one half of a medium onion.  While raw onions provide these health benefits, cooked onions release a wider variety of sulfur compounds, and they don’t cause the dreaded “onion breath.”  Cooking them longer than 30 minutes, however, can destroy most of the beneficial compounds.

Combining onions with grains like wheat foods is a great way to further boost your nutritional intake. Enriched grains provide essential B vitamins which help maintain a healthy nervous system, increase energy, and may lower cholesterol.Dietary fiber from whole grains helps reduce blood cholesterol lowering the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes, and it aids the body’s digestive process. Whole grains contain magnesium used for building bones and releasing energy from muscles. They also contain selenium, a mineral that protects cells from oxidation resulting in an improved immune system.

Maximize the healthy, and tasty, benefits of combining onions and whole grains by sampling these delicious Wheat Foods Council recipes: French Bread Pizza, Smoked Salmon with Angel Hair Pasta, Mixed Bean Soup with Pasta, and Whole Wheat Pecan Stuffing.

Learn ways to add whole grains to your diet by exploring suggestions in the Wheat Foods Council “Resources” section of its website, including: