For centuries, garlic has tantalized the taste buds and mystified scientists with its reputation for allegedly curing everything from common colds to cancer.

Scientific attempts to sort out fact from folklore have turned up some interesting clues about what effect this bulbous plant -- a member of the lily family -- has on the body.

There are about 300 different types of garlic, ranging from sweet to hot. The bulbs -- a good source of vitamin C -- contain several sulfur compounds and trace minerals such as iron. One clove of the vegetable has four calories.

The chemical allicin is the ingredient in garlic that gives it such a sharp and pungent aroma.

Research has shown that allicin can inhibit the growth or kill about two dozen kinds of bacteria, including staphylococcus and salmonella, according to Jayne Hurley, associate nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group.

If allicin is destroyed through cooking or processing, garlic can lose its ability to fight bacteria.

Preliminary studies hint that garlic may help lower "bad" cholesterol -- low-density lipoproteins -- and raise "good" cholesterol -- high-density lipoproteins.

In 1987, researchers at Loma Linda University School of Medicine fed one gram of garlic extract to 50 men and women over a six-month period and compared the results to a group that received no garlic.

"In about 60 percent of the cases, there was a decrease in cholesterol levels at the end of the study," said Benjamin Lau, professor of microbiology and surgery at Loma Linda's School of Medicine.

Currently, Lau is studying the effects of sulfur compounds in garlic on cancer-causing chemicals found in cigarette smoke and polluted air.

Despite the medicinal claims, garlic lovers cherish the bulb, not only for its flavor, but for its aroma as well. Over 30 million pounds of garlic are sold annually, according to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"The flavor of garlic can make very low-fat meals incredibly tasty and that is something Americans really need to think about," said the association's staff dietitian Elaine McLaughlin.