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By Todd Reitzel

Todd ReitzelIt’s Valentine’s Day, and perhaps not coincidentally it’s also Heart Health Month. Faced with this confluence of romance and health, of the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of staving off all those physical maladies, consider garlic. Not because it’s a magic bullet. It’s not. But because it offers much to our health yet simultaneously so greatly challenges our social sensibilities. You want to consume more garlic for its health benefits, yet there is a problem. A smelly one.

There are many claims made about garlic’s health benefits: Some of them may be right, but very few have been proven conclusively. Garlic probably lowers cholesterol and seems to thin blood. In fact, we are cautioned against its use before surgery due to its anticoagulant properties. It has been alleged to treat hypertension, but a 2012 meta-analysis found insufficient evidence to support this. There have been indications that garlic may fight cancer, but nothing conclusive yet. Garlic is full of nutrients, including vitamins B6 and C, plus manganese and phosphorus; so it can help you. But how much? Without more research, we cannot be sure that garlic can act as a medicine.

So it’s nutritious, delicious, and probably beneficial to your health. Oh, and it makes you stink.

Allyl methyl sulfide (AMS) is the compound that makes your breath and body smell for hours and even days after ingesting garlic. It’s produced in the digestive system, entering the bloodstream and then the lungs before emerging from your skin pores or back into your mouth to, ahem, test the patience of anyone near you. Many people try to reap garlic’s health benefits and dodge the odor by taking garlic supplements, many of which are marketed as odorless. Yes, the supplement capsules don’t smell. But if they contain allicin, which is garlic’s bioactive compound, then AMS will eventually be generated in the body and the odor will come. And if they don’t contain allicin, then they cannot impart the health benefits.

But don’t give up hope of enjoying pasta al pesto or chicken with 40 cloves of garlic this Valentine’s Day. There are ways to suppress the odor caused by AMS: Polyphenol oxidase—found in foods such as parsley, spinach, mint, pears, and apples—suppresses AMS formation. And garlic’s sulfur compounds are also deodorized by chlorogenic acid, found in high amounts in ku-ding-cha tea but also in coffee and in green tea.

Perhaps even more encouraging is that eating garlic may actually make your body odor more attractive. A recent study found that eating small amounts of garlic had no effect, but doubling the garlic intake resulted in higher attraction ratings by the opposite sex. Notably, this study focused on body odor, not on bad breath. So perhaps you don’t need to worry about limiting your garlic intake this Valentine’s Day. And when your date invites you in for coffee, don’t forget to drink the coffee.

Todd Reitzel, AAPS director of publications, has worked for several scientific and scholarly associations. He joined the AAPS staff in 2012 and has a keen interest in Web publishing and electronic learning.