Tearful urban legend may peel back the truth about onions

Catherine L. Kaufman

With the seasons changing and kids back at school (which I liken to immersing their little bodies into a giant Petri dish), 24-hour bugs and even worse, the flu! will start to surface. Could the common, tear-jerking onion (a member of the lily family and first cousin to garlic, chives and shallots) ward off all that ails you? You peel away the facts behind this folklore and decide for yourself!

By the end of 1919, the influenza pandemic had killed more than 40 million people worldwide. During the height of the contagion, a doctor in the Midwest was paying house calls to various farmhouses hit hard by the epidemic. Upon entering one particular home, his nostrils filled with the pungent perfume of raw onions. To his amazement, no one in that household had contracted the flu.

The farmer’s wife pointed to the assorted dishes in every room in the farmhouse filled with halved onions, and attributed the bullet-dodging of the deadly disease to this home remedy.

The inquiring-minded doctor asked if he could take one of the onions, and after examining the layers under a microscope, he noticed the tissues teaming with microbes. He hypothesized that the onion must have acted like a viral sponge, absorbing deadly pathogens from the air, and thereby creating a pristine, germ-free environment.

Fact or fiction?

Today it is well known that onions, when consumed either cooked or raw, are mighty warriors against assorted ailments. Onions and other allium veggies, more than 600 species in all, contain a motherload of potassium, folate, Vitamins A, B6 and C, dietary fiber, and are particularly rich in odoriferous sulfur compounds with antimicrobial properties found to lower blood lipids and blood pressure.

Even the venerable World Health Organization touts onions for putting the skids on atherosclerosis and providing relief for treating coughs, colds, and bronchitis, and decreasing allergy-induced bronchial constriction in asthmatics.

The more pungent perfumed onions such as the Western Yellow, New York Bold and Northern Reds have the richest concentrations of flavonoids for antioxidant oomph found to be protective against stomach and other cancers. Attributed also to reducing inflammation and blood sugar levels, maybe an onion a day could keep the doctor away.

Worth a try?

Naysayers claim the above-noted story is apocryphal, an urban legend created for pure shock value, that there couldn’t be any truth to the onion as a “virus sponge” since a virus would not choose to leave a human host’s body and attach itself to a non-living onion where it could not replicate.

During flu season, try the experiment at home. All you have to lose is a few onions. Buy a bag and concoct wonderful dishes with the rest — sauté onions in stir fries, blend in yoghurt dips, mince red ones in guacamole or seafood cocktails, bake a classic French onion soup, toss chunks in with roasted potatoes or stews, dial-up frittatas or quiches with onion rings, or whip up this batch of sweet and savory caramelized onion relish to enliven veggie or turkey burgers, sandwiches or a piece of chicken or fish. (Just don’t breathe it to a soul.)

Red Onion Relish

2 large red onions, thinly sliced

¼ cup of dark brown sugar

4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

1 cup of red wine

Sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste

Directions: In a large skillet, add onions and brown sugar, and cook over medium heat, uncovered for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently until onions are golden and caramelized.

Add vinegar and wine and bring to a bowl. Cook on low until liquid is absorbed. Season to taste. Serve warm or chilled.

Reach the Kitchen Shrink by e-mail at

or online at