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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. The onion is easily propagated, transported and stored. 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.
It is thought that bulbs from the onion family have been used as a food source for millennia. In Bronze Age settlements, traces of onion remains were found alongside fig and date stones dating back to 5000 BC. In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of onion because it was believed that it would lighten the balance of blood. Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onion to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages, onions were such an important food that people would pay their rent with onions, and even give them as gifts. Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erections, and also to relieve headaches, coughs, snake bite and hair loss.
The onion was introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition to Hispaniola. However, they found that strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America. Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable. Such onions were also used in syrups, as poultices, as an ingredient in dyes and even as toys. According to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648. Onions were also prescribed by doctors in the early 16th century to help with infertility in women, and even dogs, cats and cattle and many other household pets. However, recent evidence has shown that dogs, cats, and other animals should not be given onions in any form, due to toxicity during digestion.
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. In many parts of the world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. 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 application of raw onion is also said to be helpful in reducing swelling from bee stings.
As onions are sliced or eaten, cells are broken, allowing enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. A specific sulfenic acid, 1-propenesulfenic acid, formed when onions are cut, is rapidly rearranged by a second enzyme, called the lachrymatory factor synthase or LFS, giving syn-propanethial-S-oxide, a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor or LF. The LF gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. Tear glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant. Chemicals that exhibit such an effect on the eyes are known as lachrymatory agents.
Supplying ample water to the reaction while peeling onions prevents the gas from reaching the eyes. Eye irritation can, therefore, be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Another way to reduce irritation is by chilling, or by not cutting off the root of the onion (or by doing it last), as the root of the onion has a higher concentration of enzymes. Using a sharp blade to chop onions will limit the cell damage and the release of enzymes that drive the irritation response. Chilling or freezing onions prevents the enzymes from activating, limiting the amount of gas generated. Eye irritation can also be avoided by having a fan blow the gas away from the eyes as the onion is being cut.
It is also possible to avoid eye irritation by wearing goggles or any eye protection that creates a seal around the eye. Contact lens wearers can experience less immediate irritation as a result of the slight protection afforded by the lenses themselves. It may also be that lens wearers are familiar with controlling reflexive actions of their eyes, such as blinking, with regard to irritation, as this is an ability useful when manipulating the lenses.
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