Are Onions the Cure-All for the Flu? Or an Evil Poison? The Horticulturist Weighs In…

This morning my husband sent me a message on Facebook about an article he found regarding onions:

As a person that has had more microbiology, mycology, plant pathology, and cytology classes than the average person, this article reeked from the get-go! As I read how the author of this post frequently interchanged “virus” and “bacteria”, the rhetoric that had been pounded into me by my profs made me twitch.

I then read through the comments and just about flipped in my scientific glory. For every person that said, “this is messed up”, there seemed to be 10 that said, “ooooh, I need to go put an onion in my room”.


I quickly texted my husband a garbled rant of a response quickly detailing the obvious points. He is not from a science background, but even he had somewhat smelled a rat and forwarded it on to me for further verification.

So, of course, I had to share it on my personal Facebook wall with the epitaph: Lies! LIES! LIES! And why do I say that?  Well, let your good old friend, the bored-cuz-it’s-winter horticulturist tell you why:

1. The use of the words “flu virus” and “bacteria” as interchangeable phrases. BIG difference between the two! Anybody that knows anything (like a doctor) would know the difference!

A virus is an inert capsule of protein that contains genetic material. A virus cannot reproduce on its own and must infect a living cell to grow.  Once a virus has infected a living host cell, it begins to direct the function of the ribosomes, enzymes, and other host cellular organelles to begin to perform the functions necessary to produce viral particles. Once many viral progeny (singlular: virion) are produced, it rips open the host cell and each virion will infect a new host cell.

Bacteria are independent, 1-celled organisms that live on their own.  They can multiply and reproduce via a division processes called binary fission, budding, intracellular offspring development, and baeocytes.

2. This “doctor” made history. Really, he would have had to make groundbreaking, scientific history because a virus cannot be seen with a typical microscope that he would have had in his office in 1919 — they are just way too small! The first time a virus was seen was in 1931 with an electron microscope (not an instrument found in a common doctor’s office).

3. Onions will not kill germs in the room and make it fresh and clean. That just doesn’t jive with how germs work. Viral, fungal, and bacterial germs work by coming in you coming in contact with the infected person. If you touch them or get their spit/mucus/other body fluids on you, and you touch your infected area to your eyes, nose, or mouth, then you get sick. Or you can breath in the plasmatized secretions from a cough, sneeze, or vomit. Onions don’t filter air or somehow suck it in. Germs can’t flap their little imaginary wings and go to the onion. While the cut surface of an onion can kill what directly falls on it, it just has no way to filter the room. This is an old wive’s tale that started compliments of “Chambers’ Journal” in 1900. Did I mention that by 1900, Chambers’ Journal was known for serialized fiction. FICTION! Well, that explains a lot…

4. Wearing garlic or onions is not going to keep you healthy and prevent illness. Eating it will. However, if you do decided to wear it, you will likely remain healthy because no one will come near you!

5. An onion will turn black overnight if left next to a sick person? The only way that would happen is if you wear your shoes in your home or you have indoor pets. Call this “a sign that your house needs a REALLY good cleaning” because it is full of Aspergillus niger, a fungus that can cause aspergillosis (a serious lung disease) and otomycosis (fungal ear infection). Aspergillus niger tends to grow on onions because it takes the onion’s sulfuric compounds and breaks them down with alpha-galactosidase (a type of enzyme). Most bacteria and fungi cannot do that. And no, as stated before, an onion will not act like a sponge to absorb all the Aspergillus niger from your room. What gets there does so by randomly landing on the onion.  You need to leave your shoes at the door and not be a slob and clean your house. Keep in mind that Aspergillus niger is commonly found in floor, carpet and mattress dust; upholstered-furniture dust; pet dander; humidifier water; shoes; unlaundered clothes that have been worn outside; bird droppings; and potted plant soil.

Interesting note: Aspergillus niger is often used as a ‘challenge organism’ for cleaning validation studies performed within sterile manufacturing facilities.

6. Mayo. Ha! Do a little searching on Google and you will find that Mike Mullins, the brother of Ed that gave the tour and owner of Mullins Food Products, had to make a public statement in 2008 after a person named “Zola Gorgon” (real name: Sarah McCann, who made her name ‘cute’ so it was like Gorgonzola cheese) wrote a story on her blog, “Dinner with Zola” about her tour of their facility. McCann made her lack of memory and scientific understanding obvious with the way she botched the info she learned on the tour:

Mike Mullin’s Statement:
“There is some truth to the story, but the two examples from the plant tour look to have been combined and confused…. Quite a few food poisonings have been traced back to onion contaminations, and we throw out chopped onions after 10 days even though we cook any onions we use in our facility. The stories were used as examples for “old wives tales” for various foods.”  (Quote courtesy of Mullins Food Products.)

Fear of food poisoning from onions occurs at 10 DAYS AFTER CUTTING IT? Ya think?  I know from my own fridge that if a cut onion gets behind something and lost, after 7 days it is mushy, so this statement says A LOT!!! (Note to self: never buy food from Mullins Food Products.)  The horticulturists’s rule of thumb: use it in 3 days or compost it!

If that’s not enough, Kimberly Reddin of the National Onion Association, issued this statement:

822 7th
Street, Suite 510
Greeley, Colorado 80631
FAX 970-353-5897
Dear Concerned Consumer,
An article circulating on the Internet claims cut onions and potatoes are responsible for more food poisoning than spoiled mayonnaise. Sarah McCann wrote the article under thepen name Zola Gorgon. The article was posted in March, 2008 at McCann’s website after she toured Mullins Food Products facility.
There is not any scientific basis that cut onions are a magnet for bacteria. According to the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, juice released from cut onion is known to kill or inhibit the growth of several types of microorganisms, including somecapable of causing human illnesses.
When cut, onions release compounds that do not promote pathogen growth. This is the same compound that causes our eyes to produce tears. When handled properly, cut onions can be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to 7 days.
The claim about onions in the article by McCann has caused a great deal of concern.  Please pass the word along to your family and friends that onions can be enjoyed when handled properly.
Thanks again,
Kimberly Reddin
Director of Public and Industry Relations
National Onion Association”

(i.e.: “Hey, Zola Gorgon/Sarah McCann, you are an idiot!”)

Also, while mayo isn’t necessarily the bad guy (because it is an acidic food), leaving any food out to get warm when it is supposed to be cool is going to allow a ton of Staphylococcus species to grow. Same for things that should be hot that are allow to sit for hours at room temperature.

Staphylococcus aureus (or Staph aureus) is a type of bacteria commonly found on the skin and hair as well as in the noses and throats of people and animals. How does it get into the food? Well, as you are lovingly preparing it, or when kitty or doggy hops up on the table to sniff it, or when you are serving yourself at the party, or when other people do the same, flakes of skin, dandruff from the head, or just breathing on it it will transfer the Staphylococcus to the food.

Staphylococcus can cause food poisoning when a food handler contaminates food and then the food is not properly refrigerated. Other sources of food contamination include the equipment and surfaces on which food is prepared. These bacteria multiply quickly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness. Staphylococcus is killed by cooking and pasteurization.

And if you are like my mother, you will say that you don’t have it because you are clean. 25% of healthy people have it as part of their ‘ambiance’ and the number jumps to 80% if you are compromised by any disease or condition.

Next time you are at a pot luck, keep that one in mind…


© Mertie Mae Botanics LLC and Horticulture Talk!, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mertie Mae Botanics LLC and Horticulture Talk! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


6 thoughts on “Are Onions the Cure-All for the Flu? Or an Evil Poison? The Horticulturist Weighs In…

  1. LOL talk about a myth! I have vague memories of maybe hearing this before back in the 1960s when I was a kid. We ate onions sometimes at home and still got mumps and measles and all the fun colds and flus. Not much of a scientist myself, but liked your comment about the guy seeing a virus before they had the equipment to do so! Thanks for the info and enjoy your humor. Also appreciate your other articles — looks like a lot of good reading and glad I found your site because a friend of mine shared it on facebook.

  2. great info, yea sounds like a spoof. interesting to know about the aspergillus. we wear shoes in our house but that sounds gross enough to maybe think about changing that.

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