Chop, then stop" is the new health mantra for garlic lovers.

Researchers at the American Institute for Cancer Research found that chopping or crushing garlic activates its natural cancer-fighting components. But you should let the chopped garlic sit for about 15 minutes before you cook it, or most of the cancer-fighting substances are deactivated.

An AICR press release cites a study first published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2001, where Drs. Kun Song and John A. Milner crushed garlic and then cooked it in the microwave. After 30 seconds, the garlic's cancer-fighting compounds were cut by 90 percent. But when the garlic sat at room temperature for 10 minutes before cooking, it retained 70 percent of its anti-cancer power.

Garlic's process of forming cancer-fighting compounds takes place in stages, beginning when an enzyme called alliinase is released during chopping or crushing. But if it's heated before the enzyme can go to work, the enzyme is deactivated.

What about powdered garlic, or pre-chopped garlic in oil? "Most of the research has been done with fresh garlic," said AICR spokesman Glen Weldon in a phone interview. "Whether or not the enzyme stays active with powdered garlic is an open question. We don't think it happens with powdered, but pre-chopped garlic, if it's kept in oil, looks to be OK."

Many of us use garlic for the flavor. But, if just waiting a few minutes means a boost in health benefits, why not? You won't waste any time waiting if you just prep the garlic first, and then let the garlic sit while you do other tasks, advises Karen Collins, a registered dietitian and nutrition adviser to the AICR.

I prefer crushing garlic — just mashing the unpeeled garlic with the side of a knife blade. The outer husk loosens and is easily peeled off. Instead of "Chop, then stop"; think "Crush, don't rush."

And if you prefer to use a garlic press — "Press, then rest." (Just don't ask me to find something to rhyme with "garlic.")

If you like whole roasted garlic, Collins advises cutting the top off the bulb (which is enough to release the enzyme) and letting the garlic sit before placing it in the oven.

This recipe, from Giada di Laurentiis' "Everyday Pasta," uses other healthy ingredients, such as spinach, onions and olive oil:

SAUTEED SPINACH WITH RED ONION

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large red onion, sliced

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 10-ounce bags of prewashed spinach (about 10 cups)

Zest of 1 lemon

Mince garlic. Slice red onion. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Add broth, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Add 1/3 of the spinach. Cook until it begins to wilt, about 2 minutes. Continue adding the spinach, one large handful at a time, sauteing just until it begins to wilt, before adding more. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, sprinkle with lemon zest, and serve. Serves 4-6. — "Everyday Pasta," by Giada di Laurentiis (Potter, $32.50)


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com