Tasting the Seasons: Wild garlic

by  Dr Rupy Aujla10 Mar 2023

One of the joys of spring is the emergence of wild garlic. It has a milder flavour than bulb garlic and can be used in a variety of dishes – from pestos to soups and stews. This article explores the realm of food science by delving into human studies on the potential benefits of allium vegetables, bioactive components, and possible mechanisms.

Not your usual garlic…

Mellow flavour: Wild garlic has a milder, more subtle flavour than cultivated garlic.
Short-lived: It’s ephemeral, only available seasonally and in limited quantities.
Wild! It’s a wild species of garlic, while cultivated garlic (Allium sativum) is a domesticated variety.

Plant of Yesterday

A favourite of bears! The Latin name Allium ursinum is derived from ursus, meaning bear. It relates to folk tales suggesting that bears eat the plant after awakening from winter hibernation to remove toxins from their bodies and regain strength. It also gave rise to two of its common names – bear’s leek and bear garlic. (Sobolewska et al. 2015)

Tracing back to its origin: The Allium genus, which includes wild garlic, originated in a region that extends across the Irano-Turanian biogeographical region and the Mediterranean basin. This is where the species diversified and evolved into different varieties over time. (Ekşi et al. 2020)

A long history of medicinal use: Wild garlic is recognised as a medicinal plant due to its antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine as a natural remedy for gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders. (Stanisavljević et al. 2020)

King Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, was so impressed with wild garlic’s medicinal properties that he included it in his formal catalogue of plants with medicinal properties, known as the Capitulare de Villis Imperialibis.

Human Health

Wild garlic, also known as ramson, has been used for centuries to promote general health. As the old English proverb says:

Eat leeks in Lide [March] and ramsons in May
And all the year after the physicians may play.

Can wild garlic contribute to a health-supporting eating style?

Most likely. Wild garlic is one of your allium vegetables. It’s believed to have similar benefits to other allium vegetables such as garlic and onion, including:

Cancer prevention

Overall evidence: Multiple observational studies have shown that allium vegetables may be beneficial in cancer prevention, including gastric, oesophagal, laryngeal, and prostate cancer, as per an umbrella review of 16 meta-analyses. (Wan et al. 2019)

Zooming in:

A recent prospective study looked at whether allium vegetable intake would change the risk of gastric cancer occurrence in 3229 participants followed up for 22.3 years. Results showed associations between dietary intake of allium vegetables, particularly garlic vegetables and a reduced risk of developing gastric cancer. It’s important to note that these results are strongly limited by the use of a food questionnaire at the start of the study in 1994. Some participants may have changed their diets or lifestyles during the study period. (Su et al. 2023)

A 2014 meta-analysis of 22 case-control and four cohort studies found that a higher intake of allium vegetables was associated with a lower risk of gastric cancer, compared to a lower intake. One case-control study found protective effects for ≥2 portions of onion per week. (Turati et al. 2015)

Heart Health

Overall: Garlic and garlic preparations exerted positive effects on markers of cardiovascular disease, including decreased total cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as per an umbrella review of 9 meta-analyses. (Schwingshackl et al. 2016)

Zooming in:

One meta-analysis of 27 RCTs that collectively included 1,649 participants found that garlic consumed as a powder preparation improved multiple CVD risk factors, including a reduction in serum total cholesterol levels. Dose: 1.9 g, which is equivalent to 4.7 g of fresh garlic) covers the effective dosage (0.3 - 1.4 g), and clinical benefits on ordinary dietary intake of garlic are suggested. (Kwak et al. 2014)

A 2015 meta-analysis of seven randomised, placebo-controlled trials found that garlic intake significantly lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (Xiong et al. 2015)

Zooming out: Nuances

Nutrition studies can be tricky to interpret because they often have limitations that can make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Some of these limitations include:

  • Variability across different studies: The forms and dosages of allium vegetable consumption were different among the included studies. Some studies may have participants consuming raw garlic, onions or other allium vegetables, while others may involve supplements or cooked forms of these vegetables.
  • Influencing factors: Other factors might influence health outcomes – people who include more allium vegetables in their diets might also have a range of other health-supporting behaviours, such as eating more fibre and exercising regularly. It’s difficult for researchers to account for all of these factors and determine the specific role of each in improving health outcomes.
  • Study quality: Many studies were of lower quality because of the risk of publication bias, inconsistency, and imprecision. In particular, outcomes of meta‐analyses of observational studies were more likely to have a serious risk of bias.
  • Some inconsistencies: The association between allium vegetables and the risk of some cancers, such as colorectal cancer, was inconsistent in epidemiological studies. Some studies found contradicting results. (Chiavarini et al. Public Health Nutr)

Let’s put it this way: We still have a lot to learn about the health benefits of wild garlic. More well-deigned interventional and cohort studies are needed to better understand the health benefits of allium vegetables and the amounts needed for protective effects.

It’s like assembling a puzzle! We’ve got some pieces: lab studies showing potential mechanisms, multiple meta-analyses of human studies and strong evidence about vegetables in general. Above all, adding allium vegetables like wild garlic, onion and bulb garlic to our meals is a low-risk flavourful addition that could support our health.

Our advice: Have fun with it! Wild garlic is an aromatic addition to your meals this season that you can get creative with. It’s one of your allium vegetables and contributes to your daily veggies. Stir in one or two handfuls of chopped wild garlic leaves at the end of your favourite meals, like risotto, omelettes, stews and soups.

As described by researcher Alex de Giorgio in the Lancet Oncology:

“When it comes to garlic, the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs, an assessment that would be a boon to the health food industry if it weren’t for the caveat that garlic is best eaten raw. With this new super-food, you might ward off your friends as easily as any vampires lurking nearby.” (de Giorgio et al. 2016)

Compounds in wild garlic and allium vegetables

Wild garlic’s properties result from a range of biologically active compounds. They synergistically influence each other to produce different effects.

  • The well-known sulfur compounds: These are the most studied compounds in wild garlic. Scientists are interested in their biological activities and potential health benefits. Heard of allicin? The main sulfur compounds are broken down into thiosulfinates like allicin, responsible for garlic’s flavour and aroma. They show diverse biological activities in lab studies, such as anticancer, antioxidation, immunomodulatory and antimicrobial.
  • Flavonoids, especially such as kaempferol. They have well-known antioxidant properties.

Plus hundreds more! Leaves and stems, if regularly consumed, could be a significant source of antioxidant capacity and bioactive compounds in the diet. (Lachowicz et al. 2018)

What makes wild garlic unique?

Plant pigments: The colour of wild garlic is due to chlorophylls and carotenoids, which are natural dyes located in the leaves. The leaves seem to be relatively abundant in pigments, as compared to other Allium plants.

Minerals: Wild garlic contains higher levels of magnesium, manganese and iron (230/mg/kg) than garlic. (Sobolewska et al. 2015)

Back in context

More than just a list: It’s easy to get caught up in the list of compounds found in plants like wild garlic, but there’s so much more to consider when it comes to their potential health benefits. For one thing, these compounds don’t act in isolation. They’re part of a complex food matrix structure that we’re still trying to fully understand. In other words, just because a lab study shows promising results, we can’t automatically assume that those same results will translate to real-life conditions. Digestion and the food matrix could have a big impact on how these compounds are absorbed and used by our bodies.

So, how does it actually work?

Potential mechanisms

The exact mechanisms are unclear and still being researched, but it is hypothesised that compounds in allium vegetables may improve health through diverse mechanisms of action, such as:

  • Suppressing the growth of cancer cells

Sulfur compounds may suppress the growth of cancer cells through:

(1) Inhibiting cell-cycle progression

(2) Inducing apoptosis through activation of caspase-3 and mitochondrial signalling pathway

(3) Regulating MAPK and PI3K/Akt signalling pathways (Zhu et al. 2017)

  • Reducing oxidative stress

Allium vegetables contain several bioactive compounds with potential antioxidative capacity, including alliin, allyl cysteine, allyl disulfide, and allicin. Of these, allicin really steals the show when it comes to reducing the level of reactive oxygen species and stimulating the production of antioxidants like glutathione. And because it’s hydrophobic, it can quickly pass the cell membrane barrier to exert its beneficial effects like inhibiting catalytic mechanisms that promote a pro-oxidative state via the exchange of thiol groups in the corresponding enzymes. (Schwingshackl et al. 2016)

  • Regulating inflammation

In in vitro cell models, alliin inhibited the inflammatory response by suppressing the MAPK‐PPAR‐γ/NF‐κB/AP‐1/STAT‐1 signalling pathways and ameliorating gut inflammation. (Wan et al. 2019)

  • Regulating lipid metabolism

Giving garlic and onion oil to animal models suppressed the weight gain, and decreased the serum levels of triglycerides and total cholesterol. In vitro experiments suggested that the sulfur compound alliin could regulate lipogenesis via the activation of the AMPK–SREBP signalling pathway. (Wan et al. 2019)

Take it with a pinch of salt…

These mechanisms are hypotheses, mostly based on in vitro experiments. They are a start to explanations for the potential benefits seen in some human studies, but they need to be confirmed through further research.

Earth to Plate

A wild grower! The presence of wild garlic is often seen as an indication that a wood is ancient, as it prefers to grow in undisturbed soil. The season for foraging starts in late winter and lasts until the end of spring, although it’s best to pick the leaves before the flowers appear.

A contributor to local ecosystems: This native bulb often grows in dense clusters on the floor of damp woodland and along shaded hedgerows. It’s an important early bloom for bees and other insects that pollinate them. The bulbs are also a source of food for wild boars. (Woodland Trust)

Foraging sustainably: By being mindful of how we gather wild garlic, we can help preserve the natural environment and ensure that it continues to thrive for future generations. Check out these tips for sustainable foraging. Here are 3 important things to remember:
1. Leave plenty behind: Only pick from areas where wild garlic is abundant and leave at least one leaf on each plant that you harvest.
2. Hands off the bulbs! Carefully pick or cut the leaves from close to the ground, making sure to leave the bulb and roots underground and intact for next year.
3. Give it a sniff: Crush the leaves in the palm and take a sniff. If it smells like garlic, then you’ve picked the right plant.

Next time you’re out for a walk in the woods, keep an eye out for this delicious plant!

Flavour & Cooking

Store: To help keep it fresh longer, put the stem in a glass of water in the fridge. You can also freeze it and use it later.

Around the world: Wild garlic is enjoyed in a German soup, called bärlauchsuppe. Every March in Eberbach, there is an annual festival called Bärlauchtage – Bear’s Garlic Days, celebrating everything wild garlic!

My favourite ways to enjoy wild garlic

  • Pesto: Blitz wild garlic leaves, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil and lemon juice in a food processor or crush in a mortar and pestle.
  • Flavour cubes: You can chop wild garlic finely and put it in ice cube trays with olive oil and salt. These cubes can be added to sauces, marinades, or stir-fries for a burst of garlic flavour.
  • Infused oils: Fill a jar with wild garlic leaves and cover them with olive oil. Let the mixture sit for a few days to infuse the oil with the garlic flavour, then strain and use it as a seasoning or cooking oil.
  • Soups & Stews: Add chopped wild garlic leaves to soups, stews, and broths for a delicious and aromatic flavour.
  • Garnish: Use as a garnish for soups, salads, or other dishes. It adds a delicate flavour and a touch of elegance to any plate.

Although I haven’t experimented with wild garlic in my recipes yet, I do have some favourites, including some with its close North American relative, the ramp. Check them out:

Vegan quiche tarts with wild garlic

Wild Garlic Pancakes

Riverford’s Wild Garlic Pesto

Falafel with Wild Garlic

Quick Card

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Dive deeper

Compounds & mechanisms: Sobolewska et al.Phytochem Rev. 2015Stanisavljević et al. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2020Lachowicz et al. Eur Food Res Technol. 2018
Cancer prevention: Wan et al. Food Sci Nutr. 2019
Heart Health: Schwingshackl et al. Phytomedicine. 2016
Environment: Woodland Trust

by Dr Rupy Aujla


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