Onion - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: yangcong / cong you bing (scallions)
Japanese: tamanegi / negi (scallions)
Korean: yangpa / buchu (scallions)
Malay: bawang / chuvanna ulli (shallots)
Filipino: sibuyas / sibuyas bumbai / bumbai (shallots) / sibuyas dahon (scallions)
Sanskrit: palandu / sukandaka
Hindi: piyaj / pyaja / kanda (shallots)
French: oignon / oignon vert / echalion / echalote
Italian: cipolla / scalogno
Spanish: cebolla / cebolletas (scallions)
English: onion / scallion (green onion) / shallot (small onions)
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Allium cepa / Allium cepa var. aggregatum

Onion - Botany And History

The onion is one of the most well-known of spices. Employed nearly throughout the world as a primary culinary spice and food additive, it has been cultivated and used for both medicinal and culinary uses since ancient times. Considered one of the earliest spices to be employed by man, the use of the onion for cuisine, medicine, and even for food dates back to at least 5000 B. C. where wild onions were employed by primitive civilizations as a flavouring agent. It was to be cultivated later on by the Ancient Egyptians, who employed it as a food, spice, medicine, and as a ceremonial item. It played a major role in the early development of Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese cuisine, where it was used as a primary flavouring agent. In Europe, the use of the onion soon became a staple for nearly every method of cooking, although Mediterranean, French, Italian, and Hispanic cooking usually prefers the use of onions in soups, stews, and meat-based dishes, typically lightly sautéed in oil - a practice which is also quite common in nearly every culinary practice throughout the world. [1]

While commonly employed as a culinary spice, the onion may itself be eaten in either its raw or prepared form. When eaten raw, onions are typically added into salads to a little extra 'kick' that borders between spicy and sweet, or it may be chopped and added into dips for additional flavour, or otherwise diced or pulverized and added into foodstuffs such as forcemeat, sausages, dumpling fillings, sauces and the like. Of the myriad of culinary spices in the world, the onion (and subsequently, it's cousin, garlic) is perhaps the most versatile of all spices, capable of enhancing any culinary dish regardless of the method of preparation. Because of the unique dimension it adds to any dish that contains it, many processed foods have even integrated onion powder into their own patented 'flavour' mixtures, making it one of the most widely used spice in the world.

In the culinary world, the whole of the onion plant is classified into different names, all of which are complete edible. The onion bulb itself may simply be called an onion, or it may be classified as a "red" "white" or "yellow" onion, depending on the colour of its flesh. Red onions are notable for their reddish to slightly magenta-hue, while white and yellow onions respectably possess lighter shades of their respective colours. Each distinct colour variant possesses its own unique flavour profile, with red onions being the most intense, and white onions being the mildest of the three. Due to the disparity in flavour, some onions are more suited for specific types of dishes or culinary methods than others, although generally speaking, Asiatic and Mediterranean cuisines prefer red onions, American and British cuisine yellow, while French and some branches of Hispanic cuisine prefer white. Likewise, the size of an onion bulb itself decides the name which it often referred to. Most commonly, large sized onions regardless of colour type are simply called onions, while medium-sized to moderately large ones are referred to as shallots (again, regardless of colour, with a non-committal propensity for red and yellow varieties), while smaller (sometimes juvenile) varieties are referred to as pearl onions or 'pickler' onions due to its being favoured for pickling. Technically speaking, all onions come from the same genus (Allium) with only its maturity being the deciding factor for its various names, although some cultures such as those in South and Southeast Asia have no distinctive names for the varying sizes of onions, simply calling them "large" or "small", accordingly. [2]

Aside from the different names of the onion-bulb proper, the leaves of the onion itself can also be employed for medicinal or culinary purposes, and may sometimes be eaten raw as an accompaniment to salads or as a major ingredient in some foodstuffs. It is often chopped and sautéed, and features strongly in Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Italian cuisine. Green onions may comprise of no more than just the leaves of the as yet undeveloped bulb itself, or it may include an underdeveloped bulb at the tip, which, too is chopped and treated as though it were a green or 'spring' onion. In most English-speaking and Anglo-influenced Western (and a few Eastern) countries however, green or spring onions are typically known as scallions.

While onions have been a culinary staple throughout the world several millennia, truly wild strains of onions are now altogether extinct, having been 'cultivated into extinction' for the better part of seven thousand years of horticultural innovation. Nowadays, all of the strains of onions available to the global market are of the cultivated variety, with some newer hybridized strains also being introduced (these latter possessing unique characteristics such as numerous bulbs growing from a 'parent' base). The onion is one of the most readily identifiable of spices, noted for its spherical to spheroid appearance, multiple layers of external 'skin', and its notorious pungent, tear-causing aroma. But prior to its more notable 'look' the nascent onion looks very much like tall, long-bladed grass typically measuring some six to eighteen inches in length. It is characterized by its long, pale-green to bluish-green blade-like leaves which are arranged into a fan-like order from a fleshy base. The leaves themselves are hollow cylinders of a delicate texture which taper to a sharp point at the tip. It is these leaves which can be harvested while the bulbs are still immature (and in some cases, even when the bulbs are beginning to reach peak maturity), and employed for culinary purposes as scallions.

Veering to the nether-regions of the plant, one encounters a thick, fleshy base which is of a lighter colour (more opaque white than greenish) from which a fibrous group of roots can be seen. It is this 'base' which later takes on a spherical to spheroid appearance as it matures, eventually becoming an onion blub. The bulb itself veers from very large specimens (about the size of a billiard-ball) to very small specimens no larger than a marble. The bulb is comprised of several layers of paper-thin "skin" which veers from a magenta-coloured hue, to a paleyellow to golden colour. This skin covers a fleshy, moist inner 'meat' which too is composed of several spherical layers, one atop the other. The inner flesh of a similar colour to the external skin of the bulb with three distinct "default" colours of red, yellow, and white respectively, the colours being decided upon by the given genetic makeup of that specific strain of Allium cepa. A little known fact about the onion is that it too possesses flowers. These now considerably rare sights were once commonplace until the height of the Industrial Revolution, as its inflorescence too was employed a type of culinary seasoning. Most onions nowadays are harvested prior to the plant's flowering, thus lessening the sight of onion flowers which are notable for their umbel-shaped appearance, characteristically divided into six parts. Onion flowers tend to come in white or ivory-white hues, and lack any discernable fragrance. It was once employed for cooking, although the practice fell into disuse with the advent of a more fast-paced society. Onion seeds - an even rarer sight - are small, glossy, and black, often and are often shaped triangularly, or like roundels. [3]

The onion plant as a whole is entirely edible, with all of its parts, from its leaves down to its inflorescence being fit for culinary or medicinal usage, although nowadays, only the leaves (as scallions), and the bulb (as onions-proper or scallions) are harvested and employed for either purposes.

Onion - Herbal Uses

The onion plays a major role in the culinary and gustatory realms of nearly all the world. Being versatile and nearly indispensable for whatever recipe or cooking style, the onion plays an integral role in nearly every culinary practice, whether East or West. Edible in its raw or cooked form, the onion can even be pickled or prepared as a food unto itself, or otherwise integrated into a wide assortment of culinary treats. Onions may even be dried, pulverised, and incorporated into an assortment of whole or processed foods. Throughout the history of its cultivation and consumption, onions have been used to create a whole range of foods which are unique in themselves such as pickled onions, onion rings, onion flakes, and other foodstuffs containing (in whole or at least in part) onions in one form or another. In most culinary practices (i. e. Italian, Filipino, Chinese) onions are typically paired with its cousin garlic, both of which are usually sautéed together, or separately at first, only to be blended together later on. This combination is often very indispensible, being found in meat or vegetable-based dishes regardless of preparation. Some culinary practices substitute the onion bulb for scallions, while others still employ shallots more than onions-proper. Cajun and Creole cooking often employ both scallions and onions, or a combination of scallions and shallots in some of their spicier meat-based dishes, while Mexican cooking and some types of Hispanic and Hispanic-influenced cooking have a preference for larger, milder onions - a stark contrast to some branches of Italian or Chinese culinary practices which hanker for the more robust varieties.

Aside from its culinary applications, onions have also been employed as medicine by various cultures throughout the ages. The earliest medicinal applications attributed to onions dates back to the time of the Ancient Mesopotamians, who employed probable wild strains of onions to treat gastritis and mild stomach complaints. Ancient Egyptian herbal medicine employed onions extensively to help treat a number of various diseases, among them the common cold, flu, cough, and mild to moderately pronounced fevers. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the onion was typically integrated into herbal preparations to treat dysentery, stomachaches, colic, flu, and general aches and pains. [4] Just as it is versatile in the culinary range of things, onion is also a versatile healing spice, often requiring no more than the general consumption of the spice through partaking of foodstuffs that contain moderate to liberal amounts of the spice in order to reap its benefits. While the onion bulb has taken the lion's share of studies regarding its potent curative benefits, its leaves as well as its flowers also possess considerable medicinal properties which tend to be overlooked.

In the Middle Ages, onion leaves and flowers were often incorporated into soups and stews especially prepared to convalescent, feverish, or nursing individuals in the belief that it not only markedly improved one's health, but hastened recovery and prevented the possibility of the recurrence of illness as well. [5]Onion leaves and flowers were also decocted into a tea and drunk to provide relief for bronchial complaints such as asthma, emphysema, and general coughing. In Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Filipino folkloric medicine, it is the bulb which is typically pressed to extract its juices, which is then strained and mixed with honey or molasses to create a potent cough syrup which doubles as a digestif, and an analgesic. [6]

When extracted of its juice through pressing or some other similar method, the expelled substance may then be employed as an antifungal agent powerful enough to treat a variety of skin disorders, although its potency can be irritating to the skin, especially for individuals who have extremely sensitive skin. Its antibacterial properties are excellent for disinfecting wounds, minor cuts, and (traditionally) animal bites although it tends to sting (and the latter is usually ineffective). [7] In folkloric herbalism it is believed that onions not only protected wounds from festering, but that it facilitated in faster healing. In spite of its reputation for irritating the lachrymal (tear) glands, it is an effective decongestant, often providing near instantaneous relief for clogged sinuses. [8]

When allowed to steep in vinegar, the resulting liquid may be diluted in water and drunk to relieve general ailments, or otherwise gargled as a remedy for sore throats, to provide relief from toothaches, or to simply improve the overall health of one's gums to avoid gingivitis. The onion is also a well-known appetite stimulant (perhaps resulting in its near universal use in many recipes that transcend culturespecific culinary practices). Consuming a meal containing onions not only improves the digestion and eventual assimilation of nutrients, but helps prevent bloating, nausea, flatulence, and even cures indigestion. Older texts often state that onions, much like garlic, may possess significant aphrodisiac qualities which may help improve male sexual vigour - an association which is often applied in Traditional Chinese Medicine. [9]

Perhaps the most surprising medicinal benefits which can be derived from onions are its anti-diabetic, antihistaminic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, and anti-coagulant properties. Scientific studies have pointed out that regular consumption of moderate amounts of onions not only helped to control blood sugar levels, but also tonified the heart and helped to improve overall cholesterol levels in patients with a history of hypertension or high-blood pressure. Just like garlic, onions can be partaken of as a regular supplement for the management of diabetes or high-blood pressure, although employing it alongside prescription drugs is ill-advised due to the risk of unpredictable interactions. Some studies have even shown that onions may possess anti-carcinogenic properties that may help to prevent or treat cancer in its early stages. Likewise, the regular consumption of onions or foodstuffs containing onions is said to assist in pain management, especially in individuals who suffer from arthritis, rheumatism, or sclerosis thanks to its powerful antihistaminic and analgesic properties. [10] When employed for such purposes, it works best when combined with other pain-relieving herbs or spices such as garlic, cinnamon, ginger, and chili, either consumed via food, or otherwise made into a poultice and applied (preferably heated) unto the affected area.

Outside of the general benefits which can be derived from its regular consumption, onions may also be steeped in oil or otherwise rubbed (in its raw state) on areas which experience significant amounts of pain in order to facilitate pain-relief. In folkloric medicine, its rubifacient action was thought to be beneficial for individuals who experience alopecia areata (selective baldness), and it was believed that rubbing a raw onion on one's scalp would encourage hair re-growth. [11] Due to its long-standing use as a relative cure-all, it was also believed that an onion cut in half and left in a room would clear the air of any dangerous pathogens which may be in the atmosphere, a belief which no doubt stemmed from Mediaeval sympathetic or pseudo-magickal systems of healing. While the belief in the 'atmospheric' detoxification properties of onions may seem far-fetched, inhaling the fumes elicited by bruised onions may possess notable therapeutic properties, among them decongestion and general curative stimulation.

The essential oils derived from onions are also employed for therapeutic purposes, although due to its extremely potent and often highly allergic nature, it is either liberally diluted with a base oil (in topical applications), or otherwise only employed for aromatherapeutic purposes sans any direct application. The essential oil of onions is also often incorporated as an additive to commercially produced foodstuffs as a relatively cheaper and more flavourful alternative to onion powder.

Onion - Scientific Studies And Research

Onion (Allium cepa) is consumed across the globe not only for the distinct hearty flavor it adds to several dishes but also for the various health benefits it is associated with: its pharmacological and biological activities include being an anticarcinogenic, antiplatelet, antithrombotic, antiasthmatic, and antibiotic, just to name a few. [12]

An inverse association between the frequency of onion consumption and the risk of numerous common cancers has been established by Galeone et al. (2006) from a data set in southern Europe. Galeone et al. (2006) employed data from an integrated network of Italian and Swiss case-control studies and multivariate logistic regression models to come up with odds ratios. The multivariate odds ratios for onion consumption were as follows: 0.16, oral cavity and pharynx cancers; 0.12, esophageal cancer; 0.44, colorectal cancer; 0.17, laryngeal cancer; 0.75, breast cancer; 0.27, ovarian cancer; 0.29, prostate cancer; and 0.62, renal cell cancer. [13]

A number of studies have already detailed the hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic, anti-apoptotic, and antioxidant efficacy and potency of onion. For instance, Campos et al. (2003) noted a decrease in superoxide dismutase activities but an absence of any increase in lipid hydroperoxide and lipoperoxide concentrations in diabetic rat models on onion treatment. Moreover, the treatment of onion increased the fasting serum high-density lipoprotein levels and alleviated the hyperglycemia in rats with streptozotocin-induced diabetes. All these results from the study of Campos et al. (2003) indicate the antioxidant-related hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic effect of onion. [14] Alpsoy et al. (2013) recently furnished data about the cardioprotective and anti-apoptotic action of onion extract against the toxic effects induced by doxorubicin (30 mg/kg body weight) in rat models. In this study, the treatment of 1 mL of onion extract daily for 14 days resulted in a significant reduction in apoptotic activity, a decrease in malondialdehyde (an indicator of lipid peroxidation) levels, an increase in glutathione and glutathione peroxidase activities, and an overall decrease in creatine kinase, creatine kinase MB, and lactate dehydrogenase activities and in cardiac troponin I levels. [15] Park, Kim J., and Kim M. K. (2007) reported an improvement in the antioxidant status of aged Sprague Dawley rats on onion flesh or peel diet. A higher plasma total antioxidant status was noted in rats fed with onion flesh powder or onion peel powder when compared to controls, and a significant decrease in liver thiobarbituric reactive substances was also observed in rats on onion peel powder treatment. These antioxidant findings in aged rats are clinically important and potentially valuable for the elderly as a means of lowering lipid peroxide levels. [16]

Because of onion's high antioxidant activity, it in effect has a positive influence also on sperm number, percentage of viability, and motility since these sperm health parameters are affected by antioxidants. In a 2009 study, fresh onion juice administration significantly increased the serum total testosterone and the percentage of sperm viability and motility (p < 0.05) of rats receiving a daily dose of 0.5 and 1 g of fresh onion administered by gavage for 20 consecutive days. The test group on high-dose fresh onion juice treatment showed a significant increase in luteinizing hormone levels (p < 0.05) and in sperm concentration. [17]

Onion - Phytochemistry / Active Components

Onion holds nutritional prestige in being one of the most abundant sources of dietary flavonoids [18] and generally possesses two flavonoid subgroups: (1) anthocyanins and (2) flavonols such as quercetin and its derivatives. [12] Reports reveal that the yellow variety of onions contains as much as 270-1187 mg of flavonols/kilogram of fresh weight, while the red ones contain 415-1917 mg of flavonols/kilogram of fresh weight. Cyanidin glucosides are the main anthocyanins of red onions, and these are normally acylated with malonic acid or not acylated at all. Quercetin 4'-glucoside and quercetin 3,4'-diglucoside are the chief quercetins in onions, with kaempferol and isorhamnetin being the minor pigments. The dihydroflavonol taxifolin and its 3-, 7-, and 4'-glucosides are also known to occur in onions. [18]

Onion - Esoteric Uses

Onions have long been considered magickal, chiefly due to their variegated therapeutic properties. The Ancient Egyptians, having been the first ones to truly harness both the culinary and medicinal uses of onions, attributed magickal properties to the spice, often associating it with longevity, healing, and even eternal life. Throughout many cultures, the onion has been considered a protective herb and was hung in garlands atop rafters, or above doorways to protect a home from evil entities. [19] In the Middle Ages, a peeled onion left in a dish of water or salt water was said to cleanse an area of noxious air which was believed to cause sickness. In some branches of Hoodoo and Voodoo, the onion is often associated with cleansing, protection and de-hexing - a trait which is shared by other unrelated branches of magickal practice such as Wicca.

Early Grecian and Roman apothecaries associated onions with ferocity, vigour, and general health, which is why it was partaken of as a meal by athletes believing it would enhance their performance. It was even employed as a topical rub by Roman gladiators, and later on, by soldiers, initially in the belief that it would tone and firm their muscles. This practice later gave rise to the idea that rubbing an onion on one's skin would protect oneself from any type of bodily harm, or otherwise hasten the healing and recovery of what would otherwise be a fatal injury. In more modern branches of magick, onion is typically associated with profit and prosperity, as well as with banishing. [20] Sympathetic magick employs the onion as sure-fire way to rid oneself of bad habits, simply by allowing it to become the conduit of said negativity, after which it is then burnt or buried. Ceremonial magicians take a cue from this initially folkloric practice and employ onion powder or dried onions as a type of incense to exorcise or banish evil entities (at the risk of a very uncomfortable ritual!). Some cultures believed onions to be vivifying, and thus recommended them as an aphrodisiac for their men. Neo-shamanic practices often employ the onion for fixing spells and sex-oriented love-spells in the same vein as Afro-centric conjuring.

Traditional shamanic practices employ onions as warding items and protective talismans against malevolent spirits, slighted elementals, or daemons (akin to how garlic is employed). Because of its associations with manly vigour and desire, onions, like garlic, are forbidden for some religions. Some branches of brahmacharya Hinduism (such as the adherent of the International Society for Krishna Conciousness - ISKON; aka Hare Krishna Movement), some Sikhs, and some highly orthodox sects of Shia Islam forbid the consumption of any products containing onions for several reasons, the most notable being it's stimulatory properties which, it is believed, is said to elicit uncontrollable sexual desire.

In Islamic lore, when the Archangel Iblis (Lucifer) was cast out from Heaven by Allah (God), two plants - the onion and garlic - sprang from where he landed. It is this association which has made consuming onions or garlic haraam (forbidden) prior to entering a mosque or prior to praying. [21]

Onion - Contraindications And Safety

While onions are relatively safe for general consumption, excessive amounts may prove to cause dyspepsia in some individuals, while even the most trifling amount may of course exacerbate halitosis. Onions can be mild allergens for some individuals, especially if employed topically. People with extremely sensitive skin may experience redness, itchiness, or a burning sensation after having been exposed to its volatile essential oils whether from the raw bulb, or from an extract. Because of this, onion should never be applied topically with impunity, and a patch test must be first conducted to ensure safety. Likewise, the essential oil of onions should never be partaken of orally, as it is extremely toxic. On a side note, one should not feed pets any foodstuff which may contain even trifling amounts of onion (in powder or extract form) to one's pets, as onions are toxic to cats, dogs, rodents, and many other animals. The consumption of onions should likewise be limited (or, if possible, temporarily discontinued) when one is pregnant or nursing, as it may cause unexpected side-effects which may be harmful.

When taking medications for hypertension or diabetes, it is strongly advised that one not supplement the regimen with onion extracts for the risk of unexpected reactions which may cause complications. Individuals who partake of antidepressants such as lithium and anti-coagulants such as wafarin should likewise limit if not altogether discontinue the consumption of onions as it may react with their medication, resulting in possible lethal complications that arise from unprecedented overdosing or reactions brought about by the similar properties found in the prescription drugs that are already present in onion itself.


[1][2][3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onion

[4 - 5] https://www.herballegacy.com/Wilson_Medicinal.html

[6] https://www.freshplaza.com/news_detail.asp?id=18522

[7] https://onions-usa.org/media/view/14/Health-Properties-of-Onions

[8] https://www.foods-healing-power.com/health-benefits-of-onions.html

[9 - 10] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-643-ONION.aspx

[11] https://www.perfectskincareforyou.com/2010/06/onion-for-hair-growth.html

[12] Griffiths G., Trueman L., Crowther T., Thomas B., & Smith B. (2002). Onions--a global benefit to health. Phytotherapy Research, 16(7): 603-615. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12410539

[13] Galeone C. et al. (2006). Onion and garlic use and human cancer. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 84(5): 1027-1032. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17093154

[14] Campos K. E. et al. (2003). Hypoglycaemic and antioxidant effects of onion, Allium cepa: dietary onion addition, antioxidant activity and hypoglycaemic effects on diabetic rats. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 54(3): 241-246. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12775373

[15] Alpsoy S. et al. (2013). Antioxidant and anti-apoptotic effects of onion (Allium cepa) extract on doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity in rats. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 33(3): 202-208. doi: 10.1002/jat.1738. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21996788

[16] Park J., Kim J., & Kim M. K. (2007). Onion flesh and onion peel enhance antioxidant status in aged rats. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology (Tokyo), 53(1): 21-29. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484375

[17] Khaki A., Fathiazad F., Nouri M., Khaki A. A., Khamenehi H. J., & Hamadeh M. (2009). Evaluation of androgenic activity of Allium cepa on spermatogenesis in the rat. Folia Morphol (Warsz), 68(1): 45-51. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19384830

[18] Slimestad R., Fossen T., & VÂgen I. M. (2007). Onions: a source of unique dietary flavonoids. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 55(25): 10067-10080. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17997520

[19] https://windspirit57.tripod.com/id4.html

[20] https://www.herballegacy.com/Wilson_History.html

[21] https://abdurrahman.org/seerah/riyad/17/chap311.htm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.
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