Eat right, live well: Don't let pungent aroma keep you from onion's nutrients

  • Enjoy onion's healthful attributes in an autumnal dish of sauteed cabbage, onions and apples.

      Enjoy onion's healthful attributes in an autumnal dish of sauteed cabbage, onions and apples. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Updated 11/5/2013 1:26 PM

Did you know that onions have a history with Chicago? In fact, Chicago was named after onions.

Onions grew in abundance along the Chicago River and when the first French settlers asked local Indians the name of this area, they replied, Chicagoua, which means wild bulb plant, hence the onion.


History is not the most interesting part of onion's story. For that we have to get under its skin.

Onions belong to the allium family of vegetables, meaning grown from a bulb. All allium vegetables contain disease-fighting antioxidants and onions boast levels of quercetin (one of those antioxidants) above and beyond that in most other foods. Quercetin, found at the layer closest to the skin, is an anti-inflammatory compound and can help ease conditions such as arthritis, asthma and heart disease. Studies also have shown that people who consume a lot of onions and other allium vegetables (scallions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives), had a lower risk of stomach, colon and prostate cancers.

We often hear about nutritional difference of fruits and vegetables based on their color those differences extend to onions as well. Red onions, for example, contain more of quercetin than yellow onions. Red onions are sweet and can be added to salads and salsas; they're also delicious when grilled. Yellow onions are excellent for cooking because their very pungent flavor jazzes up any main or side dish. White onions, on the other hand, have milder flavor. No matter the color, onions are very versatile and can enhance recipes for everyday dinners and holiday feasts.

Don't let onion's tear-producing qualities stop you from enjoying their nutritional benefits. To reduce the risk of tearing, when you cut an onion place the cut side down on your cutting board to lessen the amount of released gases. Also, try to ventilate your kitchen by opening a window or burning a candle to help the gases dissipate.

So, how many onions should you chop, dice, cube or slice each day to reap in the health benefits? Experts recommend including at least half of a medium onion (32 calories; less than 1 gram fat) or one other member of the allium family into your daily meal plan.

Try this recipe: This flavorful, German-style cabbage dish is big on taste yet modest in sodium content, making it not only a wonderful side dish, but a wonderful substitute for sodium-saturated sauerkraut. Lightly sweet, tangy, sour and peppery, cabbage never had it so good. Serve as a side for pork or use it to top burgers and brats.

• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, works for the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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