Potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable crop in the United States and the fourth most consumed crop in the world, behind rice, wheat and corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Historically, Americans ate most of their potatoes fresh. Since the 1950s, however, processed potatoes — French fries and hash browns, for example — have grown more popular as the technology to freeze the vegetables has improved. According to the USDA, processed potatoes composed 64 percent of total U.S. potato use during the 2000s, compared to 35 percent in the 1960s. Americans, on average, eat 55 lbs. (35 kilograms) of frozen potatoes per year, 42 lbs. (19 kg) of fresh potatoes, 17 lbs. (8 kg) of potato chips and 14 lbs. (6 kg) of dehydrated potato products.
Potatoes are often thought of as a comfort food — richly mashed with butter and sour cream or crisply fried in vegetable oil. But when prepared in these ways, they can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
However, when prepared the right way — without butter, cheese or sour cream, for example — these vegetables are somewhat nutritious. Potatoes are low calorie, with a medium-sized baked potato containing only about 110 calories. They are a good source of vitamins C and B6, manganese, phosphorus, niacin and pantothenic acid.
The world’s favourite root vegetable, the potato comes in innumerable varieties. A member of the nightshade family, like tomatoes and aubergines, it originated in South America and has been grown in Europe since the 16th century.
Shapes vary from small (‘finger’) potatoes like Anya to large, round types like the King Edward. Most have pale brown skins and cream or yellow flesh, but some speciality varieties are differently coloured, like the Purple Peruvian.
‘Waxy’ potatoes such as Charlotte are great used in salads, while ‘floury’ potatoes such as Maris Piper are ideal for mash and baking.
Whether mashed, baked or roasted, people often consider potatoes as comfort food. It is an important food staple and the number one vegetable crop in the world. Potatoes are available year-round as they are harvested somewhere every month of the year.
The potato belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos. They are the swollen portion of the underground stem which is called a tuber and is designed to provide food for the green leafy portion of the plant. If allowed to flower and fruit, the potato plant will bear an inedible fruit resembling a tomato.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF POTATOES
Potatoes are one of the most common and important food sources on the planet, and they contain a wealth of health benefits that make them all the more essential as a staple dietary item for much of the world’s population. These health benefits include their ability to improve digestion, reduce cholesterol levels, boost heart health, protect from polyps, prevent cancer, manage diabetes, strengthen the immune system, reduce signs of aging, protect the skin, increase circulation, reduce blood pressure, maintain fluid balance, reduce insomnia, and boost eye health.
Naughty children around the world often refuse to eat their vegetables, yet they share something else in common. They almost all like potatoes! This is the strange and magical quality of potatoes; you will rarely find anyone who dislikes them or refuses to eat them. They are in almost every major continental diet in some form, and they can be prepared in dozens of ways, including baked, fried, sliced, mashed, and many more. They are native to the Americas, most likely in the Andes, Peru, and Bolivia. They were first cultivated somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in that Central American and South American region. The term potato can refer to either the plant or the entire tuber, which is rather shapeless and ugly, in most varieties. It’s scientific name is Solanum Tuberosum, and it is actually a member of the Nightshade family.
Wild potatoes still grow in some parts of the Americas, but it was introduced outside of that region only 400-500 years ago. It now dominates the world as the 4th largest food crop, and more than 1/3 of the world’s potatoes are actually now grown in China and India, where it represents an essential part of their cuisine, as well as the cuisine of many of their neighboring countries.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine and diet vegetables without potatoes. They has somehow became one of the most popular and recognized foods on the planet. Potato lovers (including me), and even those who don’t like them (yet!), will be equally delighted to know that potatoes have nutritional components that go far beyond carbohydrates and calories, and they can be an extrememly beneficial addition to any dietary plan.
First, let’s explore the nutritional facts of potatoes, before we dive into the somewhat unknown health benefits of this world-famous vegetable!
NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF POTATOES
The reason that potatoes have spread across the globe so quickly and has been so widely accepted is because they are a storehouse of energy and nutrition, including vitamins, minerals, and essential organic compounds.
MINERAL CONTENT: If you eat potatoes regularly, you ensure a good supply of water and ions in your body. This is because potatoes are rich in potassium. The concentration is highest in the skin and just beneath it. So, eating the potato with its skin is always beneficial. Potatoes also contain calcium, iron, and phosphorus.
VITAMIN CONTENT: Natural potatoes are known for the large amounts of Vitamin C present in them. Typically, 100 gm of potato will contain about 17 mg of Vitamin C. In addition to this, natural potatoes also contains Vitamin A, B and P.
WATER CONTENT: Potatoes looks very big in size, but water accounts for about 70-80 percent of the weight of a potato. So the belief that you become fat by eating potatoes is a misconception. Of course if your potato servings contain large quantities of butter, or if you can’t keep away from those high-fat and high-cholesterol French fries, then you are bound to become overweight.
STARCH CONTENT: Potatoes contain about 17% starch and it is one of the best natural sources of starch. Potato sprouting leads to the conversion of starch into sugar, so you should avoid eating sprouted potatoes.
Note: most of the nutrients in a potato are just beneath its skin. If you eat the skin along with the potato, you get all these nutrients, or else what you primarily end up eating is just carbohydrates!
WEIGHT GAIN: Potatoes are primarily made of carbohydrates and contain very little protein. This makes it an ideal diet for those excessively lean or thin people who desperately want to put on weight. The vitamin content includes vitamin-C and B-complex, which also help in proper absorption of carbohydrates. That is one of the reasons that potatoes make up a large part of the diet of sumo wrestlers, as well as many other athletes who need large energy reserves to burn off in order to compete!
DIGESTION: Since potatoes predominantly contain carbohydrates, they are easy to digest and facilitate digestion. This property makes them a good diet for babies or for those who cannot digest hard food, but need energy. However, remember that eating too many potatoes on a regular basis may cause acidity over time. Potatoes also contain a considerable amount of fiber or roughage, more in raw potatoes and cold ones than boiled or hot ones. This stimulates peristaltic motion and increased secretion of gastric juices, which eases digestion and prevents conditions like constipation and protects the body from more serious conditions like colorectal cancer. Fiber is also connected with scraping cholesterol out of the arteries and blood vessels, thereby increasing heart health.
SKIN CARE: Vitamin-C and B-complex as well as minerals like potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc are good for the skin. Apart from that, pulp obtained from crushed raw potatoes, mixed with honey, can work well in skin and face packs. This even helps to cure pimples and spots on the skin. Again, this pulp, if applied externally on burns, provides quick relief and faster healing. Smashed potatoes, and even water in which potatoes have been washed, are very good for softening and cleaning skin, especially around the elbows, and the back of the hands.
SCURVY: The vitamin-C present in potatoes can help prevent this disease, caused by a deficiency of vitamin-C. It is characterized by cracked lip corners, spongy and bleeding gums, and frequent viral infections. Although it has been eliminated from most first and second world countries with ready access to vitamin C, it still exists in certain nations of the world, so the prolific presence of potatoes in the world helps with this problem.
RHEUMATISM: There are two parts to the effect of potatoes on this condition. Vitamins like the calcium and magnesium in potatoes help to provide relief from rheumatism. Also, water obtained from boiling potatoes can relieve the pain and inflammation of rheumatism. However, due to high starch and carbohydrate content, it tends to increase body weight which may have adverse effects on rheumatic people. It is a fine balance, so you must apply it as a helpful approach without consuming the potato itself.
INFLAMMATION: Potatoes are very effective in reducing inflammation, both internal and external. Since it is soft, easily digested and has a lot of vitamin-C (a very good antioxidant that repairs tissue wear and tear), potassium and vitamin-B6, it can relieve any inflammation of the intestines and the digestive system. It is very good dietary element for those who have mouth ulcers as well. Therefore, people who suffer from arthritis and gout can use potatoes for their anti-inflammatory impact, but again, since it can add to weight gain, which exacerbates these conditions, and is commonly eaten with meat and other rich foods that make gout worse, a fine balance must be struck.
CANCER PREVENTION: Certain types of potatoes, particularly red and russet potatoes, contain high levels of flavonoid antioxidants and vitamin A like zeaxanthin and carotenes, they can protect you against many types of cancer. Also, research at the Agricultural Research service has shown that potatoes contain a compound called quercetin, which has been proven to have anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties. Finally, the high levels of vitamin A and C both have antioxidant qualities that can protect your body from the devastating effects of cancer.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE: Since high blood pressure can occur for a number of reasons that include diabetes, tension, indigestion, nutrient balance, food content and many others, different treatments are required. Luckily, potatoes can alleviate multiple possible causes; potatoes can be used to relieve high blood pressure due to tension. They can also treat indigestion due to abundance of vitamin-C and fiber within it, but they should be avoided if the high blood pressure is a result of diabetes. The fiber present in it is helpful in lowering cholesterol and improves functioning of insulin in the body, which aids in the lowering of blood pressure. This is because there is a direct relation between blood pressure and the glucose level in the blood; insulin helps to regulates that glucose level. Furthermore, the potassium found in potatoes (46% of daily requirement per serving) lowers blood pressure, since potassium functions as a vasodilator.
BRAIN FUNCTION: Proper functioning of the brain depends largely on the glucose level, oxygen supply, various components of the vitamin-B complex and certain hormones, amino acids and fatty acids like omega-3. Potatoes cater to almost all the needs mentioned above. They are high in carbohydrates, and thereby maintain good levels of glucose in the blood. This prevents the brain from letting fatigue creep in and it keeps your cognitive activity and performance high. Next, the brain needs oxygen, which is carried to the brain by the hemoglobin in the blood; its main constituent is iron. Potatoes contain iron as well. Therefore, potatoes help deliver oxygen to the brain as well. There are a wide variety of vitamins and minerals in potatoes that positively affect the function of the brain, including phosphorus, zinc, and the B complex vitamins. The vasodilating properties of potassium have also been connected to stimulation of brain function due to increased blood flow to that essential organ.
HEART DISEASES: Apart from the vitamins (B-complex, C), minerals and roughage, potatoes also contain certain substances called Carotenoids (lutein, zeaxanthin). Carotenoids are beneficial for heart health and the functioning of other internal organs. Again, since potatoes raises the glucose level in the blood and over-consumption may cause obesity, which puts pressure on your heart, you must be careful about how often you use potatoes for this health benefit. This method of preventing heart disease is not recommended for obese or diabetic people.
KIDNEY STONES: Kidney Stones, also known as Renal Calculi, are caused mainly due to increased levels of uric acid in the blood. In such cases, foods high in protein should be avoided, particularly animal proteins such as meat, turkey, shrimp, fish, eggs, and milk, as well as spinach, raw plantain, black grams and certain beans, which drastically increase the level of uric acid in the blood. Iron and calcium also contribute to forming the stones. Potatoes are rich in both of these so logically, they wouldn’t fit in as a preventative measure of kidney stones, but they also contain magnesium, which inhibits the accumulation or deposition of calcium (calcification) in the kidney and other tissues, thereby proving beneficial for treatment of renal calculi.
DIARRHEA: Potatoes are an excellent component of an energy-rich diet for those suffering from diarrhea, since it is very easy to digest and contains mild roughage. However, eating too many potatoes can cause diarrhea due to the excessive ingestion of starch.
OTHER BENEFITS AND CAUTIONS: Juice from potatoes is a good treatment for burns, bruises, sprains, skin problems, ulcers, effects of narcotics, prostate cancer, uterine cancer, and the formation of cysts or tumors. On the other hand, some care also needs to be taken while eating potatoes. Green potatoes are often poisonous, and so are potato leaves and fruits, as they contain alkaloids like solanine, chaconine and arsenic. An overdose of those chemicals could easily prove fatal. Moreover, the glycemic index (in simple words, the energy or sugar content) of potatoes is very high (above 80), so people that are obese, trying to lose weight, or diabetic should avoid eating potatoes. If eaten, potatoes are healthier when baked, rather than raw or fried.
However, don’t worry; those health risks affect a small part of the population of potato eaters in the world. If you are otherwise fine and healthy, don’t forget that a bit of fat is not bad for you; it’s actually beneficial. Don’t be afraid to enjoy some potato chips and French-fries while watching TV. You won’t become a couch potato if you eat in moderation!
TIPS TO REDUCE LOSS OF POTATO NUTRIENTS
Here are some tips that will help you in reducing the loss of potato nutrients:
Avoid peeling the potatoes before cooking them. The outer shell provides a good protection against nutritional loss during the cooking process. The protein and mineral content beneath the skin is very high, so if you cook the potatoes after peeling them, most of these proteins and minerals will be lost.
When you boil potatoes, first heat the water to its boiling point and then add the potatoes. This will reduce the cooking time and help you maintain the Vitamin C content.
Potatoes are fat free, but they are also starchy carbohydrates with little protein. According to Harvard, the carbs in potatoes are the kind that the body digests rapidly and have a high glycemic load. That is, they cause blood sugar and insulin to surge and then dip. This effect can make people feel hungry again soon after eating, which may lead to overeating. The rapid rise in blood sugar can also lead to increased insulin production. Jarzabkowski said, “The last thing I’d recommend to a diabetic is a potato.”
On the other hand, potatoes are also a great source of fiber, Jarzabkowski said, and the fiber content helps you feel fuller longer.
Jarzabkowski recommended that when planning meals, people should remember potatoes’ carb content. “Potatoes should take the place of a grain on the plate. Use it as a carb rather than as your only vegetable,” she said.
Even when prepared in a healthy way, potatoes can present health problems to individuals with obesity or diabetes. They are high in simple carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. Jarzabkowski likened the vegetables in this way to white bread.
The Harvard School of Public Health tracked the diet and lifestyle of 120,000 men and women for about 20 years and found that people who increased their consumption of French fries and baked or mashed potatoes gained more weight over time — as much as 3.4 lbs. every four years.