When you’re paying up for a supplement, you expect there to be clinical studies or at least in vitro (lab) research to support its price tag. At an independent health food store here in Los Angeles, we stumbled across this Dr. Mercola fermented black garlic supplement.

60 capsules for $21.29 + tax. Is it worth it?

Probably not.

Now that’s not a diss at the doctor. We respect Mercola and appreciate the fact that he doesn’t use magnesium stearate or titanium dioxide in his supplements. But this is one of his products that would be on our avoid list, simply because the science doesn’t support the hype. At least not yet.

Plus, there are a few concerning things we discovered about the benefits of this purported superfood.

What is black garlic?

Both regular white garlic and the black come from the same species (Allium sativum). To make it black, it undergoes a fermentation process. The result is a sweet and sticky food without the normal pungency of the spice. Korean and Chinese recipes make use of it but the exact origin is unknown.

While it’s believed to have been around for centuries if not millennia, it’s really only been during the past decade that it’s been for sale here in the US. We hear our friends in Canada and the United Kingdom are even later to the game.

holding a raw black garlic clove

photo: Mokkie [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wiki Commons

How to make black garlic at home is difficult but not impossible. The process involves a carefully controlled process of applying low heat and high humidity over the course of a few weeks. After cooling, it’s usually packaged in sealed plastic or jars. This provides a long shelf life of several months at room temperature.

Aside from stinking up your house for several weeks, the big danger of doing it yourself is bacteria and fungus, as they thrive in warmth and humidity. That’s why it’s best to buy from experts who have a tested process for safely making it.

Of course, the manufacturing process can differ depending on who’s making it and what it’s being used for. All remain hush-hush as to exactly how they’re making it, so there may be other steps involved which aren’t public knowledge. But in a nutshell, it’s fermentation that blackens and softens the cloves.

And yes, this food is vegan and gluten free. At least typically.

What does it taste like?

Black garlic tastes like sweet fruit. If you crossed Medjool dates with shiitake mushrooms, this would be its love child. If you can believe it, many liken its flavor and creaminess to that of chocolate or molasses. This sweetness comes from the carbohydrates in garlic, which have turned to sugars during fermentation.

Nutrition facts

black garlic nutrition factsIf you ate 35 grams (1.24 ounces) of normal raw garlic cloves, the calorie count would come in at 52 and less than 1 gram of sugar. (1)

Now when you compare black garlic vs. white garlic, the difference is night and day.

A same serving size of the black cloves will yield 8 grams of sugar and 70 calories. That’s according to the nutrition facts for Sadaf black garlic, pictured here. We couldn’t find it at Whole Foods. It’s sold in a jar and can be found for sale at supermarkets specializing in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Neither color is a good source of vitamins and minerals considering the typical small serving size. Furthermore when it comes to the fermented, vitamin C and some other nutrients will inevitably get destroyed. But to reiterate, there wasn’t much to begin with.

Black garlic oil is not nutritious. Usually it’s just a bad vegetable oil, like palm oil, blended together. Adding the whole cloves and olive oil into your blender is a better alternative.

Don’t even get us going on the Nissin Demae black garlic oil ramen noodles. The tonkotsu flavor has artificial ingredients.

Health benefits

We have ruled out vitamin and mineral content, but how about other phytonutrients?

What follows are the benefits of black garlic and the fine print about each.

1. Contains antioxidants

This is what you will see touted on supplements but let’s be honest here, even Bud Light beer has some antioxidants. The question is not if, but how much?

When compared to raw, Dr. Mercola’s website reports that the fermentation leads to “oftentimes doubled or more, the oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) value.” That’s a measurement of antioxidants.

His site doesn’t list the actual ORAC value but from research elsewhere, we know the ORAC of raw garlic is 5,708. That’s for 100 grams, which is about 3.5 ounces.

Obviously you would never eat that much raw garlic!

pint of blueberriesEven if the ORAC value was doubled, that only equals around 11,400 per 3.5 ounces. Yes, that’s over double the value of blueberries (4,669) but keep in mind the serving size.

Chowing down on a quart of berries could easily equal 3 or 4 ounces, if not more. Contrast that to popping 2 capsules, which is listed as 800 mg of active ingredients.

800 mg is actually less than 1% of 100g, though let’s just be generous and round up to 1%. Taking 1% of 11,400 means each serving of capsules might equal 114 ORAC units.

To put into perspective how low that is for an antioxidant supplement, consider that the same weight of astaxanthin would be around 28,000 ORAC units (almost 250x higher). That’s because 2,822,200 is the ORAC value of astaxanthin.

2. Best natural source of S-allyl-cysteine

molecular formula and chemical structure of S-Allyl-L-cysteineNow in defense of the supplemental forms, it would be unfair to simply say there’s low overall antioxidant content and leave it at that.

There are thousands of different types of antioxidants and they each have different rates of bioavailability and interactions in the body. For example, some curcumin supplements are believed to pass through the blood brain barrier while others cannot.

The biggest benefit of black garlic vs. Kyolic and other white supplement brands is that there is more S-allyl-cysteine (SAC) in the black. This organosulfur compound is created during the fermentation. The very unstable allicin gets converted to the fairly stable S-allyl-cysteine.

From a supplement perspective, this is attractive because it means the active or beneficial ingredient is degrading slowly. Research has found SAC to be stable for up to 2 years. (2)

While not proven in humans, in animal and lab studies the following benefits of S-allyl-cysteine have been reported:

Neuroinflammation, which is a risk factor for dementia, was decreased in rats. (3) (4)

Liver cirrhosis in rats was improved when treated with SAC. (5)

Anti-glycation effects were observed in cultured cow cells. Glycation contributes to signs of aging and it is even more problematic for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. (6)

Skin benefits were seen in hairless mice exposed to UV radiation; less collagen degradation due to its apparent influence on the matrix-metalloproteinase (MMP) and NF-kB signaling pathways. (7)

Erectile dysfunction (ED) in rats was also reportedly restored with its use. (8)

Age-related sperm dysfunction in rats appeared to have improvement. (9)

That’s just a sampling of what’s being seen in research using S-allyl-cysteine. Antioxidant activity alone can’t explain many of these apparent benefits, which would suggest this compound is acting in other ways too.

To date, no human studies have taken place.

aged black garlic extract supplement facts label

How much S-allyl-cysteine there is in aged black garlic is higher, yet it’s still a relatively low amount overall; 1.2 mg is listed as part of the 800 mg supplement (dosage of 2 vegetarian capsules).

Unfortunately there are no supplements on the market selling isolated or more purified forms of SAC.

Despite its low concentration, the garlic black and aged has up to 18x the concentration of SAC versus the fresh raw. So as of today it remains the best source but from a technological perspective, it feels like back in the 90’s when taking 50 mg of L carnosine – another anti-glycation agent – was touted as useful. Today, 500 mg and above is considered the starting dose and research suggests lower amounts are like a drop in the bucket.

As they eventually did with carnosine, they really need to find ways to create higher concentrations of S-allyl-cysteine.

3. Source of allicin

whole garlic clovesIf you’re not familiar with allicin, it’s the compound hailed for both health and flavor.

When you crush or chop a fresh clove, an enzyme in the garlic called alliinase converts alliin into allicin.

This is what gives you that signature scent that only the fresh can provide. It’s also the reason why scientists suspect why this vegetable may be useful for the flu and colds.

The problem is that allicin is unstable and gets broken down into other compounds within just minutes of its creation.

In the case of fermentation, that creates more of the S-allyl-cysteine we just reviewed. On the flip side, it means black garlic has very little allicin. (10)

So sure, it is a source, but raw garlic for colds has more science to support it.

4. May have more protein

The powdered form has around double the protein content by weight, though it appears that’s due to the water weight being removed.

Actually, many of the amino acids in black garlic degrade during the aging process, as seen in this table showing the amounts at beginning (day 0) and at the end (day 35).

changes in protein amounts as garlic ages

Source: Molecules, Volume 19 Issue 10 (11)

The BCAA isoleucine go up, while valine goes down. As you see, it’s a mixed bag.

Regardless, the protein advantage is null. Whether you’re eating raw, whole pickled cloves, or swallowing capsules, the small amount you’re consuming at any given time means only minute amounts of protein are being consumed.

5. Fresher breath

At least on a relative basis, there’s no arguing that the black will create less offensive odors than the white.

For some, that benefit may be important. For others, the temporary smelly breath is a worthwhile trade-off for the higher allicin content of the white.

6. May lower blood pressure

Based on 4 meta-analyses and 2 original studies which all involved human patients, it was found that garlic supplements reduced systolic blood pressure by 7 to 16 points and 5 to 9 for diastolic. Most relevantly, it was also noted that…

“The most consistent benefits were shown in studies that used aged garlic extract.”

To be clear, most aged formulations are white in color and don’t involve fermentation. The effects of garlic on heart disease are not conclusively proven, though evidence such as this makes a strong case in support of eating this food in almost any form. (12)

7. May slow progression of atherosclerosis

Fatty deposits (plaque) build up on artery walls over time. This hardens them and narrows the pathway for blood to flow through.

In a double-blinded, randomized, and placebo-controlled trial involving 65 “intermediate risk” patients, those treated with a 250 mg daily dose of aged garlic extract plus vitamins experienced a slowing of atherosclerosis progression.

That was after the regimen was used for one full year and how their biomarkers compared to the placebo group. (13)

Research suggests this happens because the extract inhibits coronary artery calcification and low-attenuation plaque. (14)

8. Cancer research

On PubMed.gov you will find nearly 4,000 medical literature citations containing the keywords garlic and cancer. Not many, but a few of those involve aged black garlic extract.

For now, beneficial effects have only been demonstrated in the lab. It’s far too preliminary to draw any conclusions.

Using cultured human colon cancer cells, it was found to interfere with their growth and trigger apoptosis (controlled cell death) through the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway. (15)

In cultured leukemia cells, apoptosis was triggered in a dose-dependent manner. The mechanism of how it worked was believed to be through what’s known as the caspase cascade. (16)

Diallyl disulfide, another organosulfur compound found in black garlic as well as fresh, has been found to inhibit triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) cell lines. (17) (18)

9. Diabetes research

In an animal model of type 2 diabetes, the aged black was fed at an amount equal to 5% of their diet. For another group, the freeze-dried white was 5%. Lastly, there was a control group on a normal diet.

“Activities of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) of garlic and aged black garlic group were significantly elevated compared to the control group. Catalase (CAT) activity of aged black garlic group was increased compared with the control group.”

Those bolded words are internally created antioxidants, which suggests that this food may actually boost internal production of antioxidants. Maybe its low ORAC value isn’t a deal breaker after all?

Furthermore, the aged black group had “significantly decreased” levels of the diabetic marker known as TBARS, which is a measure of lipid peroxidation. (19) (20)

Other animal studies have demonstrated potential advantages for diabetes. It’s too early to know if rodent research translates to human health.

10. Easier to digest

close-up photo of what black clove looks likeWhat is black garlic good for? As with other fermented foods, it’s easier to digest. Some people can’t eat the raw or the lightly cooked because of it causing indigestion. Most notably heartburn, though some experience gas and bloating. You don’t hear much about these side effects when it comes to eating aged garlic. This makes it a good option for people who can’t or refuse to eat the fresh pungent version.

Being soft, it’s easier for the elderly to chew. That trait, along with its sweet flavor, will captivate kids too.

How to use

As with maca and many other purported superfoods, often times the hype doesn’t match the proof. This is another example of that. Almost all of the purported benefits are unproven and many stem from animal research only. Some are totally fabricated and based on zero research, like it helping hair loss or that it can boost hair growth. Evidence for weight loss is nowhere to be found.

garlic capsules for sale on store shelf

At a local independent vitamin shop, none of these supplements were cheap.

The good news is that there’s nothing to suggest black garlic is bad for you, with the exception of your wallet. Taking the supplements is an expensive commitment. Unless you have money to burn, adding this to your supplement regimen might not be worth it. At least until more studies are published.

Its use as a food is another story. You are getting the best of both worlds – the enjoyment of what you eat and perhaps some health benefits to boot.

Unlike the crisp fresh cloves, black garlic is supposed to be soft. You don’t have to cook it if you don’t want to. You can spread it as-is onto bread with a butter knife or even mix it with ice cream.

Yes, you read that correctly. The sweetness works with many foods you would never fathom adding garlic to. Since the flavor is mild, it will shine best in bland dishes. Try it with rice, pasta, soup, and dips. Hummus is like a blank canvas for it.

It also jives well with vinegar for making salad dressings and marinades. If you want to make your friends think you’re a sophisticated foodie, use it with crimini mushrooms and top a homemade pizza or even pureed and spread over corn on the cob. All are delicious and yes, the added black garlic is good for you. The same can’t be said about most other flavor enhancers.

Where to buy black garlic

jars of minced and chopped garlicEven here in Los Angeles, we have yet to see it for sale at a normal grocery store, like Whole Foods or Ralph’s (Kroger in California).

When we are too lazy to hassle with fresh, often times we just end up buying something like Gilroy Farms chopped garlic in water. Certainly nothing to write home about!

With proper planning, ordering it ahead of time solves that conundrum.

On Amazon, we like RioRand’s organic black garlic. This brand claims high S-allyl-cysteine content. If you’re on the fence then just start with their small jar, though we recommend the value of the two pound jar.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.