The Health Benefits Of The Potato – Suprising And Filling
I have spent the last 2 months in Southern Ireland with my 5 energetic munchkins, and part of that experience was learning about potato blight, the Irish famine and the surprising health benefits of the potato. It truly is amazing that the Irish people literally depended on the lowly potato in one of the most difficult part of their history. Hundreds of thousands perished when the potato blight hit and many immigrated to the USA at the time looking for food. I’ll have to say there are many people today that live on such a tight budget with families – knowing how important this little vegetable is can make you sleep better at night knowing your kids are getting a calorie dense food packed full of important nutritious magic. The health benefits of the potato – surprising as it is filling.
HISTORY OF THE POTATO
Potatoes originated in the Andean mountain region of South America. Researchers estimate that potatoes have been cultivated by the Indians living in these areas for between 4,000 and 7,000 years. Unlike many other foods, potatoes were able to be grown at the high altitudes typical of this area and therefore became a staple food for these hardy people.
Potatoes were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers who “discovered” them in South America in the early 16th century. Since potatoes are good sources of vitamin C, they were subsequently used on Spanish ships to prevent scurvy. They were introduced into Europe via Spain, and while they were consumed by some people in Italy and Germany, they were not widely consumed throughout Europe, even though many governments actively promoted this nutritious foodstuff that was relatively inexpensive to produce. The reason for this is that since people knew that the potato is related to the nightshade family, many felt that it was poisonous like some other members of this family. In addition, many judged potatoes with suspicion since they were not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, potatoes initially had such a poor reputation in Europe that many people thought eating them would cause leprosy.
Some of the credit for the rise in potatoes’ popularity is given to two individuals who creatively engineered plans to create demand for the potato. In the 18th century, a French agronomist named Parmentier created a scheme whereby peasants could “steal” potatoes from the King’s “guarded” gardens. He also developed and popularized the mashed potato that became popular probably because he made this suspicious vegetable unrecognizable. Another person who was instrumental to the acceptance of potatoes was Count Rumford. A member of the British scientific group, the Royal Society, Rumford created a mush soup made of potatoes, barley, peas and vinegar, which the German peasants adopted as a satisfying and inexpensive dish.
It is thought that the potato was first brought to the United States in the early 18th century by Irish immigrants who settled in New England. People in this country were slow to adopt the “Irish potato” and large scale cultivation of potatoes did not occur in the U.S. until the 19th century.
There are not that many foods that can claim that a pivotal historical event centered around them. But the potato can. By the early 19th century, potatoes were being grown extensively throughout Northern Europe, and potatoes were almost solely relied upon as a foodstuff in Ireland owing to this vegetable’s inexpensive production and the poor economy of this country. Yet, in 1845 and 1846, a blight ruined most of the potato crop in Ireland and caused major devastation: this event is known as the Irish Potato Famine. Almost three-quarters of a million people died, and hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, including the United States, in search of sustenance.
Today, this once-infamous vegetable is one of the most popular throughout the world and the one that Americans consume more of pound for pound than any other. Currently, the main producers of potatoes include the Russian Federation, Poland, India, China and the United States. The health benefits of the potato are surprising and the vegetable is quite filling.
Potatoes are a very popular food. A comfort food some might add. Unfortunately, most people eat potatoes in the form of greasy fast food French fries or potato chips, and even baked potatoes are often loaded with fats such as butter, sour cream, melted cheese and chunks of bacon.
This can make even baked potatoes a possible contributor to a heart attack or overall poor cardiovascular health, and this is happening earlier and earlier in life as we see morbid obesity playing a role in many children’s lives. But take away most of the extra fat, frying, and then the baked potato is a healthful low calorie, high fiber food power house food that offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease cancer and wards off hunger in a hurry. Hunger pains come around about every 2-3 hrs with children, so eating potatoes in the most healthy way makes a lot of sense in order to give our kids a head start on the stay healthy spectrum.
Our food ranking system states potatoes as a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber, and pantothenic acid. Depending on the size of potato and orange on hand, some potatoes can have as much or more vitamin C in them as an orange or other vitamin C rich foods.
Potatoes also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant benefits. Among these health-promoting compounds are carotenoids, flavonoids, and caffeic acid, as well as proteins, such as patatin, which have activity against free radicals in the body. Free radical cause inflammation and can make it harder to recover from injuries.
Blood-Pressure Lowering Potential of Potatoes- Kids have high blood pressure too sometimes.
UK scientists at the Institute for Food Research have found blood pressure-lowering compounds called kukoamines in potatoes. In the past researchers only found kukoamines in Lycium chinense, an exotic herbal plant with bark that is used to make a Chinese medicine. Kukoamines were found in potatoes using a new type of research called metabolomics.
Until now, when analyzing the composition of a plant, scientists had to know what they were looking for ahead of time and could often look for 30 or so known compounds. Now,” metabolomic techniques” make it possible for researchers to find surprises by analyzing hundreds or thousands of small molecules produced by any one organism or plant.
Potatoes have been produced/grown to perfection for thousands of years, but it’s incredible that even the most familiar of foods might hold secrets to volumes of health-promoting chemicals. This is yet another great reason to put potatoes on the table and know that you are giving your children/family one of the healthiest foods in the world.
Researchers now are showing that kukoamines are stable during cooking and how much of these compounds are needed to impact health in a good way.
Now lets talk a little bit about what’s in an average potato that makes them so good for you.
Vitamin B6—Building Your Cells
If only for its high concentration of vitamin B6—1 medium potato contains over one-half of a milligram of this important nutrient—this alone makes the potatoe a healthy food.
Vitamin B6 is needed in about 100 enzymatic reactions. Enzymes are proteins that help chemical reactions to occur in your body that are needed for health, so vitamin B6 is active almost everywhere in the body. So many of the building blocks of protein, amino acids, require B6 for their synthesis. The nucleic acids used in the creation of our DNA also need B6. Because new cell formation requires amino and nucleic acids , vitamin B6 is essential for the formation of virtually all new cells in the body. Heme(the protein center of our red blood cells) and phospholipids (cell membrane components that promote messaging between cells) also depend on vitamin B6 for their function.
Potatoes are Rich in Vitamin B6—Brain Cell and Nervous System Activity
Vitamin B6 plays a number of roles in our nervous system, many that involve neurological (brain cell) activity. B6 is necessary for the making amines, a type of messaging molecule or neurotransmitter that our nervous system relies on to send messages from one nerve to the next. Some of the neurotransmitters made from amines that require vitamin B6 for their production include serotonin, low levels are linked to depression; melatonin, the hormone necessary for a good night’s sleep; norepinephrine and epinephrine, hormones that aide in responding to stress; and GABA, which is needed for normal brain function.
Potatoes are Rich in Vitamin B6—Cardiovascular Protection
Vitamin B6 plays yet another critically important role in methylation, another chemical process in which methyl groups are transferred from one molecule to another. There are so many essential chemical events in the body made possible only by methylation, for example, genes can be turned on and turned off in this way. This is especially important in cancer prevention since one of the genes that can be switched on and off is the tumor suppressor gene, p53. Another way that methylation helps prevent cancer is by attaching themselves to methyl groups making toxic substances less toxic and encouraging our body to eliminate them.
Methylation is also vital to cardiovascular health. Methylation changes a potentially dangerous molecule known as homocysteine into other, benign substances. Since homocysteine can directly damage blood vessel walls greatly increasing the progression of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, high homocysteine levels are associated with a significantly increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Eating foods rich in vitamin B6 can help keep homocysteine levels low. In addition to that, diets high in vitamin B6-rich foods are associated with lower rates of heart disease, even when homocysteine levels are normal, most likely due to all the other beneficial substances within this energetic B vitamin.
A single baked potato on average will provide you with about 3 grams of fiber, but since the fiber in potatoes is mostly in their skin, leave the peel in place to get this benefit. Wash them well first before cooking. Remove all blemishes as well. If you want the cholesterol-lowering, colon cancer preventing, and bowel supportive effects of fiber, be sure to eat the potato’s flavorful skin as well as its fluffy meaty center.
Vitamin B6—Athletic Performance enhancer-
Vitamin B6 is also necessary for the breakdown of glycogen, the form in which sugar is stored in our muscle cells and liver, so this vitamin is an important variable in athletic performance and endurance.
The Potato- Comfort Food
Whether you mash it bake it or make it into French fries ( preferably using coconut oil in order to avoid transfats), many people think of the potato as a comfort food. This belief probably inspired the potato’s scientific name, Solanum tuberosum. Solanum is a Latin word meaning “soothing”. The potato’s name also tells us something about it belonging to the Solanaceae family whose other members include tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and others.
There are about 100 varieties of edible potatoes. The variety available in many parts of the world is much less today then in the past due to planting only a few types of potatoes and some influence from genetic engineering of seeds. There is a challenging “evolution” going on since at least 2015 or before that is influencing the genetic diversity of our food, the potato just being one of them.
Having a large diversity in gene sequencing is what makes it possible to have a large variety of plants and animals on the earth. This same genetic diversity is important for plants and animals to adapt to an ever changing environment as well. Genetic Modification in plants are thought to improve crop production, pest resistance and make more consistent food sources available, but we still are barely understanding much of what is to be learned about the risks or producing Geneticly modified foods and what their health risks will be. If the genetic make up of plants is made or manipulated to be more uniform, then when the environment/weather changes, more of the crop is going to be adversely affected and less of the crop will have the genetic diversity to adapt to any change around it.
The potato famine in Ireland in the mid 1800’s is one good example of this. The type of potato they grew in Ireland were not grown from seeds, instead they were planted from a portion of the parent plant, therefore a clone of the parent plant if you will. This lack of genetic variability caused a deadly invasion of a bacteria that wiped out the entire potato population. Had there been more genetic variability, then some resistance to that bacteria would have been possible making some potatoes thrive and the Irish people would have staved off starvation of at least part of the population of Ireland.
Types of potatoes-There are so many
They range in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. They are often called either mature potatoes (the large potatoes that we are usually familiar with) and new potatoes (those that are harvested before maturity and are of a much smaller size- my favorite and my kids favorites for soups or anything other than baked. Some of the popular types of mature potatoes include the Russet Burbank, the White Rose and the Katahdin, while the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac are two types of new potatoes.
There are also delicate fingerling varieties that are finger-shaped. My kids also love these as they are just fun due to the different shape, especially if you toss them on their plates whole so the shape can be truly appreciated.
The skin of potatoes is generally brown, Yellow or red/purple and may be smooth or rough, while the flesh is yellow, purple or white. There are also other varieties available that feature purple-grey skin and a beautiful deep violet flesh.
Potatoes have a starchy flavor, they are a good complement to many meals. Their texture varies slightly depending upon their preparation, but it is rich, creamy, satisfying and filling.
How to Select and Store-
While potatoes are often packaged in a see through plastic bag, it is usually better to purchase them individually from bulk areas in the store. Not only will this give you control over inspecting the potatoes for signs of decay or damage, but many times, the plastic bags don’t have perforations in them and that can cause a build up of moisture that can negatively affect the potatoes. Not a good thing.
You ideally want potatoes to be firm, well shaped and relatively smooth, and they should be free of decay that often manifests as wet or dry rot. Don’t buy the ones that are sprouting or have green coloration since this indicates that they may contain the toxic alkaloid solanine that can impart an undesirable taste, and also cause many different undesirable health conditions such as circulatory and respiratory depression, headaches and diarrhea when consumed in large enough doses.
Sometimes stores will offer pre-cleaned potatoes. These should be avoided as this removes their protective coating making them more vulnerable to bacteria. In addition, pre-cleaned potatoes are more expensive. Why would you do this if you have to wash them again once you get home.
Since those delicious little new potatoes are harvested before they are fully mature, they are much more susceptible to damage. Be extra careful when picking these out so the ones you get are free from discoloration and injury.
Potatoes are a food that is best when purchased certified organic. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that you are exposed to more contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals when eating non-organic varieties- This exposure can be greatly reduced through purchasing certified organic foods, including potatoes. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells potatoes but has not applied for formal organic certification, ( as this is expensive to get) either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) Having said that- if you are shopping in a large grocery store, the best way to ensure your are getting organically grown potatoes is seeing the USDA organic logo displayed.
I recall while living in a German farm village in my youth sitting under the barn floor made of concert on top of the sugar beats and potatoes talking to my friends, kind of a hide out of sorts. This type of dark cool area is an ideal way to store potatoes. It is a dry place between 45F to 50F (between 7-10C). Higher temperatures, even room temperature, will cause the potatoes to sprout and dehydrate prematurely. This is not what you want. While most people do not have root cellars that provide this type of environment, to store the potato in a quality storage area, you should aim to find a place as close as possible to the above conditions. Storing them in a cool, dark closet or basement may be suitable alternatives. Potatoes should never be exposed to sunlight as this can cause the development of the toxic alkaloid solanine to form.
Potatoes should optimally be stored in the refrigerator, so their starch content will not turn to sugar which will give them an undesirable taste. You also do not want to store potatoes near onions, as the gases that they each emit will cause the degradation of one another. I have seen this in my own kitchen over and over until one day, I realized what was happening. I don’t have this problem any more. Wherever you store them, they should be kept in a burlap or paper bag if at all possible.
Mature potatoes if stored properly can keep up to two months. Check on the potatoes frequently, throwing away or composting any that have sprouted or shriveled as spoiled ones can quickly affect the quality of the others.
New potatoes – my favorite, are much more perishable and will only keep for one week.
Cooked potatoes will keep fresh in the refrigerator for several days. Potatoes do not freeze well. Just trust me they really don’t. It changes the texture where most do not like them any longer. I suppose you could put them in soups if not freezer burned.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
The potato skin is a wonderful concentrated source of dietary fiber, so to get the most nutritional value from this vegetable, don’t peel it – eat both the flesh and the skin. Just scrub the potato under cold running water right before cooking and then remove any deep eyes or bruises with a paring knife. If you can’t resist peeling it, do so carefully with a vegetable peeler, only removing a thin layer of the skin and therefore retaining the nutrients that lie just below the skin. This is so important to get the most out of each potato nutritionally.
Potatoes are one of those foods that should be cleaned and cut right before cooking in order to avoid the discoloration that occurs with exposure to air. If time doesn’t allow you to cook them immediately after cutting, place them in a bowl of cold water, add a little bit of lemon juice, which will prevent their flesh from darkening and will also help to maintain their shape during cooking. Potatoes are very sensitive to certain metals that may cause them to discolor therefore avoid cooking them in iron or aluminum pots or using a carbon steel knife to cut them. Stainless steel or ceramic cookware is best for these little guys, or bake on parchment paper in a baking dish.
How to Enjoy – A Few Fun Ideas
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Purée roasted garlic, cooked potatoes and olive oil together – this makes a delicious dish of garlic mashed potatoes. Season to taste.
- Potatoes are a featured ingredient in the classic dish, Salad Nicoise, which pairs new potatoes with chunks of tuna fish and steamed green beans dressed lightly with oil and vinegar.
- Toss steamed, diced potato with olive oil and fresh herbs of your choice. I love tossing with a bit of rosemary. My kids love this one.
- The utter cuteness of the two examples below need no explanation-just imagine the expressions on your kids faces when they come to the table and see these!!!!!
Potatoes are one of the vegetables that belong to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family.
Nightshade all belong to a scientific family of plants called Solanaceae—This includes several thousand species of flowering plants, and most are not edible as food. At the very same time, there are several of the nightshades that have been enjoyed as staple foods in diets for thousands of years. In this category you will find tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers. Nightshades also include certain herbs and spices, and these nightshades include cayenne pepper and chili pepper.
Nightshades are nutrient-rich/dense foods. Bell peppers, for example, are our second most concentrated source of vitamin C. Tomatoes are our second most concentrated source of biotin, as well as our second most concentrated source of lycopene (a carotenoid phytonutrient). All nightshade foods are excellent sources of fiber.
Alkaloids in Nightshade Foods…
Alkaloids are a chemically related group of substances found in a variety of foods, including cocoa, coffee, tea, black pepper, and honey (depending on the types of flowers found in the bees’ foraging zone). Alkaloids in food can have health benefits, sometimes including antioxidant-related benefits and cancer-protective properties. These same potential health benefits have been linked in research studies to some of the alkaloids found in these nightshades.
Impact of Preparation, Cooking, and Storage
One aspect of potato alkaloids is where they are located in the potatoe. As part of the potato’s natural protection system, it makes sense for the potato to make alkaloids where it is most vulnerable – in the skin, the flesh just below the skin, and the spots where it has started to sprout. The skin is the most exposed portion of the potato, and the sprouting spots are places where rapid growth is taking place. So it makes sense for the potato to take special protective measures in the skin and sprouting spots. These two described areas also makes it relatively easy for anyone to lower the alkaloid content of potatoes if desired. We’ve seen a study on potatoes from Mexico in which 65-70% of the alkaloids were removed by skinning the potatoes prior to cooking.
If you are wanting to lower the alkaloid content of potatoes, you might want to cut out any sprouting spots prior to cooking. In general, though, since the alkaloid content of potatoes averages well below the 200 microgram/gram level and the potato skin is an especially nutrient-rich portion of the potato, I like the idea of cooking potatoes with the skin intact rather than removed. This is why it’s very important to buy certified organic varieties whenever possible as the pesticide level will be so much lower or none at all on the skin surface.
Cooking itself can have many different degrees of impact on the alkaloid content of potatoes. We’ve seen one study in which the total glycoalkaloid content of potatoes was lowered by 40% after 10 minutes of baking at 410°F (210°C). Longer term, dry heat cooking methods (like oven baking) seem more effective in lowering alkaloid content than (wet heat methods) like steaming or boiling.
Now about storage, studies show that exposure to light can increase the alkaloid content of potatoes—partly by increasing the metabolic events associated with sprouting. Because of this, you should be able to lessen the development of alkaloids in potatoes by storing them in a dark place that is protected from light.
Nightshades and Specific Health Problems
It is not uncommon to find cases from individuals who have been diagnosed with different types of arthritis or other musculoskeletal health problems in which elimination of nightshades vegetables resulted in a feeling less pain. While I don’t dispute the experience of anyone who makes dietary changes and experiences a change in health, I also can tell you that there has been no large-scale human research study showing health improvement of any kind following elimination of nightshades. While future research may clarify this relationship between nightshade alkaloids and the function of our joints, musculoskeletal, or nervous systems, at present we have no research-based reason to recommend elimination of nightshades in connection with these medical conditions.
Processed Potato Products and Acrylamides
Regularly cooked whole potatoes are not a concern when it comes to acrylamide, a potentially toxic and potentially cancer-causing substance over time/years of eating nightshades. Yet, fried, processed foods made with potatoes—such as potato chips and french fries—are considered among the highest risk of foods when it comes to acrylamide exposure. This is yet another reason to avoid or minimize your intake of these foods.
Acrylamide is found in vegetables that contain the amino acid asparagine, such as potatoes, when they are heated to high temperatures in the presence of certain sugars this risk is higher still.
Potatoes are a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber and pantothenic acid. Eat them whole picked by hand from bulk areas of grocery stores, preferably certified organic and stay away from the processed forms of potatoes to reduce/ minimize your risk of acrylamide exposure and thus over time, increasing your risk of cancer overall.
In the absence of a research basis for recommending avoidance of nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and bell peppers—and given the known nutritional benefits of these foods as well as their potential health benefits—we recommend enjoyment of nightshade vegetables unless your personal eating experience tells you otherwise. With respect to potatoes, we would also note that for persons wanting to lower the alkaloid content of this nightshade food, the skinning and removal of potato skin and sprouting spots can significantly lower their alkaloid content.
Hope this post will be of benefit to the health of your family. Please leave feedback and comments below. I greatly appreciate it.
Dr. Leigh Gilburn