This study could be a game-changer for garlic

A new scientific breakthrough at Virginia Tech is sure to please the garlic lovers of the world, but may just spell doom for any vampires among us. Researchers have made a metabolic discovery that opens the door for more flavorful, stronger smelling garlic cloves.

Moreover, thanks to these findings, farmers may soon be able to determine the potency of the garlic they harvest in the future. Consequently, supermarket garlic shelves could one day be separated into different potency sections; extra intense, normal, and mild.

Garlic is a bit more complicated than your average vegetable. It’s been used as a seasoning by humans for literally thousands of years, offers tons of health benefits and perks, and is still an essential ingredient to this day in kitchens and cookbooks across continents and cultures. You would be hard-pressed to find a Michelin-rated chef who doesn’t use garlic in their recipes. 

Of course, for all of its obvious culinary benefits, garlic is also infamous for its pungent smell and intense taste when consumed raw. For these reasons, garlic is somewhat divisive among people; some love garlic and use it in every meal, while others do their best to avoid it for fear of bad breath.

When it comes to taste and smell, however, not every head of garlic is created equal. Some garlic cloves pack a more intense flavor/smell punch than others, but dating back to the beginnings of human endeavors in the kitchen, farmers, shoppers, and chefs alike have all had to guess when it comes to a particular head of garlic’s potency. 

Now, the team at VT has discovered a new “step” in garlic’s metabolic process responsible for the production of allicin, the enzyme that creates garlic’s unmistakable taste and aroma. These findings contradict scientific beliefs regarding garlic that have been accepted for decades and open up a world of possibilities (more consistent garlic crops, control over flavor/smell intensity).

“This information changes the whole story about how garlic could be improved or we could make the compounds responsible of its unique flavor,” explains study co-author Hannah Valentino, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Ph.D. candidate, in a release. “This could lead to a new strain of garlic that would produce more flavor.”

Originally, the team behind this study set out to examine the previously accepted biological processes within garlic that create allicin. Curiously, though, once they got started, it became clear very quickly that this earlier theory wasn’t accurate at all. So, researchers opted to investigate and find the true allicin process.

“By using rational design, Hannah found a potential substrate,” says study co-researcher Pablo Sobrado, professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “This is significant because by finding the metabolic pathway and understanding how the enzyme actually works and its structure gives us a blueprint of how allicin is created during biosynthesis.”

Without getting too deep into the scientific specifics of the research, the study’s authors worked directly with garlic molecules and enzymes in a lab setting. Eventually, this analysis led to the discovery of an entirely different biosynthetic process responsible for creating allicin. 

At the core of this breakthrough is the revelation that allicin levels can also be tested and measured. That means farmers will conceivably be able to predict a strain of garlic’s flavor profile and intensity without being forced to resort to genetic engineering. With this knowledge in hand, it would be possible to breed or engineer more or less potent variations of garlic depending on demand/desire/etc.

“We have a basic understanding of the biosynthesis of allicin that it is involved in flavor and smell, but we also now understand an enzyme that we can try to modulate, or a modify, to increase or decrease the level of the flavor molecules based on these biological processes,” professor Sobrado concludes.

Besides just delighting pre-existing garlic lovers, these revelations could also convert a few garlic naysayers as well. Shoppers who are usually wary of garlic’s intense smell and taste will probably be much more likely to try out a milder garlic variation. 

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.