The onion is any of a variety of plants in the genus Allium, specifically Allium cepa. Allium cepa is also known as the “garden onion” or “bulb” onion. Above ground, the onion shows only a single vertical shoot; the bulb grows underground, and is used for energy storage, leading to the possibility of confusion with a tuber, which it is not. It is a close relative to garlic.
Onions are found in a large number of recipes and preparations spanning almost the totality of the world’s cultures. The whole plant is edible and is used as food in some form or the other. They are now available in fresh, frozen, canned, caramelized, pickled, powdered, chopped, and dehydrated forms. Onions can be used, usually chopped or sliced, in almost every type of food, including cooked foods and fresh salads and as a spicy garnish. In European cultures they are rarely eaten on their own, but usually act as accompaniment to the main course. Depending on the variety, an onion can be sharp, spicy, tangy, pungent, mild or sweet.
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack. These are often served as a side serving in fish and chip shops throughout Australia, often served with cheese in the United Kingdom and are referred to simply as “pickled onions” in Eastern Europe. Onions are widely used in Iran and India and Pakistan, and are essential to daily life in the local cuisine. They are commonly used as a base for curries or made into a paste and eaten as a main course or as a side dish.
Onions are also used as an aromatic in cooking. In the classic mirepoix it is used along with celery and carrots to flavor stocks, soups, stews and sauces.
Onions have particularly large cells that are readily observed at low magnification; consequently, onion tissue is frequently used in science education for demonstrating microscope usage.
Wide-ranging claims have been made for the effectiveness of onions against conditions ranging from the common cold to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. They contain chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant properties such as quercetin. However, it has not been conclusively demonstrated that increased consumption of onions is directly linked to health benefits. Some studies have shown that increased consumption of onions reduces the risk of head and neck cancers.
In many parts of the world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. A traditional Maltese remedy for sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight. An application of raw onion is also said to be helpful in reducing swelling from bee stings.
Onions may be especially beneficial for women, who are at increased risk for osteoporosis as they go through menopause, by destroying osteoclasts so that they do not break down bone.
An American chemist has stated that the pleiomeric chemicals in onions have the potential to alleviate or prevent sore throat. Onion in combination with jaggery has been widely used as a traditional household remedy for sore throat in India.
Shallots have the most phenols, six times the amount found in Vidalia onion, the variety with the lowest phenolic content. Shallots also have the most antioxidant activity, followed by Western Yellow, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Northern Red, Mexico, Empire Sweet, Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. Western Yellow onions have the most flavonoids, eleven times the amount found in Western White, the variety with the lowest flavonoid content.
For all varieties of onions, the more phenols and flavonoids they contain, the more reputed antioxidant and anti-cancer activity they provide. When tested against liver and colon cancer cells, ‘Western Yellow’ pungent yellow (New York Bold) and shallots were most effective in inhibiting their growth. The milder-tasting cultivars (i.e., ‘Western White,’ ‘Peruvian Sweet,’ ‘Empire Sweet,’ ‘Mexico,’ ‘Texas 1015,’ ‘Imperial Valley Sweet,’ and ‘Vidalia’) showed little cancer-fighting ability.
Shallots and ten other onion (Allium cepa L.) varieties commonly available in the United States were evaluated: Western Yellow, Northern Red, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Empire Sweet, Mexico, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. In general, the most pungent onions delivered many times the benefits of their milder cousins.
3-mercapto-2-methylpentan-1-ol in onion was found to have an antioxidant potent that inhibits peroxynitrite induced diseases.