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Shallots: the Type of Onion with Cancer-Fighting and Heart-Improving Properties
December 14, 2022
Historically, the shallot has been used for both for its nutritional and aromatic properties in Indian, Asian, French and Mediterranean cooking. Are shallots good for you? You bet. They not only add a sweet and pungent flavor to recipes, but they also come loaded with antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin C and some important minerals, too.
The shallot is considered an important plant in Indian medicinal practices and is commonly prescribed as an effective remedy for several ailments in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, it’s been used to heal numerous bodily conditions for thousands of years – both internally and externally, thanks to its natural “cooling” effect on the body. This makes shallots (and onions too) beneficial for lowering inflammation, muscle aches, swelling and water retention.
You may be wondering a few things, such as: What can I use shallots for? Are shallots better than onions? And can I substitute an onion for a shallot? Just like other vegetables that have a similar taste, including onions and garlic, shallots can either be eaten raw or cooked, which makes them versatile and easy to incorporate into recipes. Studies suggest that fighting cancer, reducing food allergies, and enhancing detoxification are all known benefits of eating this vegetable.
What Are Shallots?
What is a shallot exactly? Are shallots onions? A shallot, which has the scientific name Allium cepa (or previously aggregatum), is a type of onion and a member of the Amaryllidaceae plant family (also called the allium family), which includes more than 1,600 different plant species.
Shallots, onions and garlic all are bulbs, or underground stems, that have strap-like leaves, strong tastes and a high concentration of antioxidants. Just like with onion nutrition and garlic nutrition, shallot nutrition is known to have potent anti-cancer properties and immune-enhancing effects.
Shallots are smaller than white, yellow and red onions. Today, many types are grown around the world, with their skin color varying from golden brown to gray to light red. Most shallots have a copper-colored peel and an off-white flesh, which is sometimes broken up by green or magenta lines.
Compared to white and yellow onions, shallots are described as having a richer and sweeter taste. Some people also describe their taste as more potent, while others say they are more subtle. This seems to depend on size. Smaller ones usually taste milder.
The fact that shallots and other onions have “bite” in terms of their flavor is a sign of their nutrient content. Their pungent flavor is believed to an indication of their blood vessel-dialing properties and ability to improve circulation and lower disease-causing inflammation. This is the reason why the shallot is known as a heart-healthy food, just like garlic is.
In Ayurveda, shallots are thought to contain five of six types of tastes that foods are classified by: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and astringent. This is why “a little goes a long way” when you use this ingredient when cooking — it makes a big impact even when you use such small amounts.
The shallot is thought to have originated in Central or Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. The vegetable quickly traveled from there to India and regions within the eastern Mediterranean, where it is still widely used today.
What is a it named in different parts of the world? The name “shallot” dates back to Ancient Greek times, but around the world shallots go by many different names. The Indian names include kanda or gandana, while ham, brambang and other names are used in places like the Philippines and Thailand.
- Brown shallots (also known as English or Dutch) are the most commonly available in many parts of the world. These are small, have a light brown skin and have a mild flavor.
- Pink shallots have a pink skin and a crisp texture. Their flavor is more pungent. These are sometimes called “false shallots” or “Jersey shallots.” Their skin is pinkish-orange, and their flesh is usually white to light purple.
- Banana shallots are the largest variety. They have a smooth, tan-colored skin and are slightly milder in taste.
- Asian shallots are smaller and have a deep purple color.
- French gray shallots, also known as griselles, are pear-shaped and have a subtle flavor.
1. High Source of Antioxidants
Are shallots better than onions in terms of their antioxidant health benefits? Even though used less often in recipes, they are thought to contain more flavonoid and phenol antioxidants than most other members of the onion family. This makes them one of the best anti-inflammatory foods for reducing free radical damage and fighting various chronic diseases.
Two sets of compounds make up the majority of shallots’ known healing properties: sulfur compounds, such as allyl propyl disulphide (APDS), and flavonoids, such as quercetin. These compounds’ effects are primarily how both onions and garlic have benefits for reversing disease.
According to a report published in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, both onions and garlic contain protective sulfur-containing compounds mainly in the form of cysteine derivatives called cysteine sulfoxides. These wind up naturally decomposing when you eat them because they interact with your digestive enzymes, in the process producing beneficial compounds called thiosulfinates and polysulfide. These special decomposed products are considered valuable but delicate. They are mostly found in the oils of onions and garlic.
Because they hold the majority of sulfoxides, the oils of shallots (and other onions too) possess “antidiabetic, antibiotic, hypo-cholesterolaemic, fibrinolytic and various other biological actions.” This means they can help control blood sugar levels, help prevent insulin resistance, fight bacterial and viral infections, help lower cholesterol levels naturally, and prevent blood clots from forming. Other studies also show that allium veggies or herbs have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that benefit skin, blood vessels, digestive organs and muscle tissue.
2. Cancer Fighting
You probably already know there’s a strong link between cancer prevention and your diet. Research published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention in 2012 showed that ethyl acetate extracts (EEOs) found in shallots and other onions have potent inhibitory effects on animal fatty acid synthase (FAS) that help slow down the growth of cancerous cells.
What is a shallot capable of helping with when it comes to cancer prevention? The ability to induce apoptosis, or self-destruction and death of dangerous cells, is well-researched in allium vegetables. This appears to be especially beneficial for fighting some of the most common types of cancers, including breast, stomach and colon cancers.
Results from one large case study indicate that consumption of allium vegetables may considerably reduce the risk of stomach cancer. The association was investigated in the Netherlands Cohort Study on diet and cancer, which started in 1986 and followed 120,852 men and women ranging in age from 55 to 69 years. A strong inverse association between onion consumption and stomach cancer incidence was found, and many other studies have found similar findings.
3. Improve Heart Health
Onions’ many antioxidants, including allicin and quercetin, are considered anti-hypertensives. Based on human and animal studies, onions’ quercetin may reduce blood pressure. Allicin is a special and somewhat unique compound found in shallots, garlic and other onions that is released when you puncture their skin.
According to a 2013 review done by the Department of Applied Biology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, “Allicin was discovered to further protect the cardiovascular system by enhancing antioxidant status and lowering the level of reactive oxygen species and stimulating the production of glutathione.” Glutathione is often called a “master antioxidant” and known for powerfully improving health in multiple ways.
Allicin compounds can inhibit a certain reductase enzyme that is produced in the liver in order to make cholesterol. They help improve circulation and dilate blood vessels, which makes them a great food for lowering high blood pressure.
Shallots are also a good source of potassium. Potassium helps regulate your body’s fluid levels and plays an essential role in nerve and muscle functioning, including one of your one most important muscles: your heart. Eating plenty of potassium-rich foods supports a healthy metabolism since this mineral is needed to break down carbohydrates into usable energy. Plus potassium is linked to cardiovascular health by way of helping lower high blood pressure and offsetting the effects of a high-sodium diet.
4. Might Help Fight Obesity
Some studies have found that EEOs present in shallots can also suppress lipid (or fat) accumulation and potentially help prevent obesity. Since obesity is closely related to heart disease, diabetes and cancer formation (obese patients are considered to be at an elevated risk of developing various cancers and other chronic diseases), onions might be useful for preventing both weight gain and obesity-related complications.
5. Help Prevent or Treat Allergies
Results from numerous studies have shown that shallots have promising anti-allergic effects that can be attributed to their anti-histaminic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that shallots and onions are effective for impacting various events responsible for allergic reactions.
When shallot extract was given to mice, they experienced a reduced histamine release and other benefits related to common allergy symptoms. A substantial reduction in lipid peroxidation within the lungs was found, and a higher level of protective antioxidant activity, especially superoxide dismutase activity, was also observed with lung tissue. This means that shallots and onions can help reduce symptoms of certain allergies.
6. Have Antibacterial and Antiviral Properties
Both shallots and garlic produce biochemical reactions that are known to fight infections, viruses and inflammation. When various immunological parameters of the shallot have been studied, researchers have found that the vegetable’s antioxidant enzymes (especially superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase) help fight common illnesses and more serious infections, too.
Onions have also displayed antifungal activity against various fungi in many studies, including candida. If you want to fight candida symptoms naturally, low-sugar, healing veggies like shallots should be at the top of your list.
Research has found that onions contain natural antibacterial activities that can help alkalize the body and fight even strong, potentially deadly forms of bacteria. Allicin found in the shallot, onions and garlic is also a powerful antimicrobial that offers protection against a wide range of bacteria, including some multidrug-resistant bacteria that are especially dangerous.
7. Improve Circulation and Detoxification
Both shallots and garlic are thought to help remove carcinogens and toxins from the digestive tract thanks to their circulating-boosting abilities. According to traditional forms of medicine, something that tastes pungent on your tongue, including the shallot and garlic, are also thought to lower heat exhaustion and inflammation and prevent dehydration or overheating. This is one reason why onions are commonly eaten in many warm climate countries.
Onions can help stimulate digestive enzymes, heal the gut, lower oxidative stress within the digestive organs, and prevent inflammation associated with food allergies or sensitivities. They are also an effective ingredient for helping with liver detox.
8. Can Help Control Blood Sugar Levels
Onions are known to be natural anti-diabetics, since many studies have shown that they have beneficial effects on insulin and might also help control weight gain. Shallots and other alliums are thought to be a part of a diet that helps naturally treat diabetes since they have hypoglycemic-preventing effects that stimulate insulin secretions. This lowers inflammatory responses that are associated with diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.
According to researchers from the University of Michigan, eating large amounts of onions has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, possibly by blocking the breakdown of insulin in the liver. APDS compounds in shallots have been shown to block the breakdown of insulin by the liver and possibly stimulate insulin production by the pancreas, which increases the amount of insulin within the blood and reduces glucose.
One ounce of raw shallots (about 28 grams) contains approximately:
- 20.2 calories
- 4.7 grams carbohydrates
- 0.7 grams protein
- 333 international units vitamin A (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams vitamin B6 (5 percent DV)
- 2.2 milligrams vitamin C (4 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams manganese (4 percent DV)
- 93.5 milligrams potassium (3 percent DV)
- 9.5 micrograms folate (2 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams iron (2 percent DV)
- 16.8 milligrams phosphorus (2 percent DV)
In addition to the sulfoxides found in the shallot and other alliums, there are also peptides and proteins present that are capable of various immune-boosting activities — making the shallot an important source of therapeutic agents.
Shallots and onions are both members of the same plant family but different species. This means that they are related, but shallots are not “a younger version of an onion.” The shallot’s closest relatives are garlic, chive, leeks and Chinese onions.
Compared to onions, shallots are usually smaller, have finer layers and contain less water. They are also described as having a sweeter taste, which makes them the best complement to fish and chicken. Because they contain more water than onions, they usually require a longer cooking time to caramelize.
How to Choose
Similarly to how garlic grows, shallots are formed in clusters, which is why you might see several packaged and sold together. Their peak season is naturally through the summer months, but you can usually find them in larger grocery stores year-round.
What is a shallot supposed to look like? Healthy shallots have their skin on and don’t have any visible bruises. It’s best to buy ones that feel somewhat firm and store them at room temperature.
How can you tell if shallots are bad? Avoid shallots that have soft spots or damp or mouldy patches, which can indicate they are rotting.
Store them in a cool, dark, dry place with good air circulation. If you purchase them when fresh, they will stay good for several weeks. Shallots can also be chopped and frozen up to three months — just know that they will have less bite once defrosted.
How to Use
You can choose to eat shallots raw (they taste similar to red onions), cooked or even pickled in vinegar. Most often they are cooked, either by being sautéed in a pan or roasted.
It’s recommended that you peel shallots before eating them. To do this, trim off the top and then peel. Some people choose to first put shallots in boiling water for a minute which makes peeling easier.
It’s best to cut into fresh shallots just before you’re ready to use them, which will keep their delicate antioxidants better protected within their skin.
Some of the many ways you can prepare shallots include making:
- fried shallots/crispy shallots cooked in coconut or olive oil
- pickled shallots
raw, minced shallots, which can be added to salad dressings
You can try pan-frying shallots for about two to three minutes or roasting them for about 20 minutes. They make a great addition to sautés, stir-fries, whole-grain side dishes, salads, soups and casseroles.
Some flavors that shallots go well with include rosemary, thyme, balsamic vinegar and olive oil, so together these make a perfect sauce or marinade for lean beef or chicken recipes. Definitely try using shallots with garlic, since you’ll get double the immunity-boosting benefits that way. Also, try combining raw shallots with fresh fruit or vegetables to make healthy salsas (pineapple, jalapeno and shallot salsa, for example).
In the U.S, they tend to be more expensive than other onions because they are usually imported. They can also be more difficult to grow, especially when organically grown, which means lower yields and a higher cost.
It’s considered a staple ingredient for adding nutrients, along with big flavor, to recipes around the world. For example, in India shallots are used in curries and different types of sambar, a staple lentil-based dish and shallots recipe. They are also commonly pickled in red vinegar to mellow out their “bite” a bit and then served along with sauces and papad on a mixed condiments tray.
In Iran, shallots, called mousir, are grated and mixed into dense-savory yogurt, which is served in almost every restaurant as a condiment for grilled kebabs. Throughout the Middle East and other parts of Asia, shallots are also pickled and used to make different types of sour side dishes consisting of a variety of vegetables soaked in vinegar. It’s common to find this type of dish in Iranian and Persian restaurants, for example.
In traditional Southeast Asian cuisines, including those of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, shallots and garlic are used together as spices and commonly eaten raw. They are usually paired with cucumbers when pickled in vinegar or sometimes fried in coconut oil to make crispy shallot chips.
Risks and Side Effects
Most people can eat shallots and other onions without any side effects, although for some they might be hard to digest or cause interactions with certain medications. Higher intakes of onions may worsen existing heartburn or acid reflux, for example, although they don’t usually cause heartburn in people who do not already have it.
Onions and shallots are also foods that can worsen IBS-related symptoms for some people, since they contain FODMAP carbohydrates that have the potential to cause digestive issues when they aren’t properly broken down in the gut. If you have IBS and related symptoms like constipation or bloating frequently, it’s worth doing an elimination diet and seeing if removing common-culprit foods like garlic and onions can help.
There have also been a small number of reports of allergies to onions, including among people with asthma, skin rashes and red, itchy eyes. Onions and shallots are safe for children and during pregnancy or nursing, but again they have the potential to add to acid reflux, which is something you’ll want to monitor.
- Shallots are a type of onion and a member of the Amaryllidaceae plant family (also called the allium family).
- They contain more antioxidants (flavonoids and phenols) than other members of the onion family. They can help reduce oxidative damage and fight various health problems like infections, high blood sugar levels/insulin resistance, blood clots and high LDL cholesterol levels.
- Shallots contain many antioxidant including sulfoxides, which give them antibiotic, antidiabetic and fibrinolytic properties.
- There are many types of shallots. The skin varies from pink to golden brown to gray to red, and shallots have a sweet, complex and slightly garlicky taste.
- Where can I use shallots? They can be eaten raw (usually in salads and dressings), cooked (such as sautéed or roasted) or pickled. Shallots are a good addition to salad dressings, fish and chicken dishes, stir-fries, sautés, salads, soups, side dishes, and casseroles.