With onion prices skyrocketing, let's review their nutritional value
The nutritional value of onions is usually disregarded since it is rarely the main ingredient of a meal.
The mighty onion wields a strong influence on the Indian palate - as well as politics. The 1980 national elections, dubbed by some as the ‘onion elections’, saw Indira Gandhi storm back to power by protesting against rising onion prices. Sliced onions are served on the side at most North Indian establishments; it is a given that curries and roasts will be augmented by the kick of the root vegetable.
Last week, onion prices touched Rs 200 per kg in parts of the country. Thieves have looted godowns and markets, and an export ban and import push have been implemented. Amidst all this, you might be wondering whether onions add anything to the diet, nutritionally, at all. The nutritional value of onions is usually disregarded since it is rarely the main ingredient of a meal. A deeper look reveals some interesting details about the food item we often take for granted.
A low-calorie garnish
Raw onions pack a light punch (calorically speaking) at 40 calories per 100 grams. Simple sugars account for most of the carbohydrates - glucose, fructose and sucrose.
About 89% is water, 9% is carbs and 1.7% is fibre. There are also trace amounts of protein and fat.
Onions are a good way to add flavour to nutritious foods, without resorting to ingredients such as butter, salt, etc. The way you cut it, the way you decide to cook it - it all ends up deciding the flavour it adds to the dish. This means that a variety of foods can be appreciated without as much of an increase in calories.
In praise of onions
It has been established that onions, which belong to the allium family of vegetables, contain crucial fibres called prebiotics. Prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria in the gut produced by fermented foods (called probiotics) and foster a healthy gut environment. In fact, a study in 2018 suggested that prebiotic fibre found in the onion family may even be more beneficial than the fibre from fruits, other vegetables and whole grains. Prebiotics have also been linked to better overall colon health and a lower incidence of colon cancer.
Essential vitamins and minerals
Onions also contain vitamins C, B6, B9 (folate) and potassium. All of these have established health benefits including better immune function, improved heart health, and blood pressure maintenance. It is difficult to draw clear-cut conclusions based on these benefits since it is not clear how the body assimilates and absorbs these substances after consumption. It has been suggested that cooking breaks down some of these compounds and reduces their effectiveness. Consuming onions raw or 10 minutes after chopping to allow for catalytic reactions may provide greater health benefits.
Onions are feted for their antioxidant properties and sulfur content. Quercetin, which is an antioxidant present in onions, is associated with lower blood pressure and better heart health. The various sulfides found in onions are known to reduce the risk of certain cancers. Thiosulfinates, which are also sulfur-containing compounds, are known to discourage the growth of harmful microorganisms. It has therefore been suggested that onions have antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Various other benefits
Though further studies are required, it has been suggested that onions are beneficial to diabetics. A study that followed type 2 diabetics found that those who consumed 100 grams of onions a day had lower blood sugar levels. Observational studies dealing with women have correlated onion consumption with better bone health - higher bone density and mass have been reported.
Onions aren’t for everybody
Onion allergies are rare but intolerance levels are higher. Onions contain FODMAPs - short-chain carbohydrates that disrupt the guts of those who can’t absorb them. Symptoms include an irritated gut such as gas, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and acid reflux. Those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are especially prone to intolerance and FODMAPs can exacerbate symptoms.
Onions release lachrymatory factor (LF) in the air when they are cut and can irritate the eyes and lead to tears. Cutting onions in water can absorb some of the gas and make the experience less unpleasant.
Onions have been an integral part of many Indian diets thanks to their delicious taste and the fact they are a low-calorie addition. They boast several benefits and can be incorporated into most foods without much hassle.
Here’s hoping prices are normalized soon so that onions can go back to their unassuming, supplementary selves.
For more information, please read our article on Vitamin C.
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