Rich, creamy, soul-satisfying and the bane of the dieter, the potato has been much maligned by advocates of low-carb weight loss plans. But is the potato really that unhealthy? Is it actually so bad for you? What is the nutritional profile of the vegetable? Should one shun it, or is the exclusion of it from food-plans unnecessary?
A native of the Andean areas of Peru and Bolivia, potatoes have been cultivated for more than 7000 years. They were taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Potatoes became a favourite in Ireland in the 1800s till the Potato famine of 1846-1850. It was brought by Irish settlers to the USA in the 1800s. Today, it is consumed more than any other veregatble in that country.
Why should I be aware of this?
- Potatoes are an excellent source of potassium, vitamins B6 and C, niacin, pantothenic acid and dietary fibre.
- Potatoes contain moderate amounts of protein about 2.5 grams in a moderate sized potato. This is approximately the same as that found in corn and rice.
- Potatoes contain lysine, an essential amino acid lacking in grains.
- Most of the nutrients, fibre and protein in the vegetable are actually found in the potato skins.
- Potatoes are low in calories. A medium sized potato contains only 115 calories. Unfortunately most potatoes are consumed in the form of fries, crisps, chips, as baked potatoes with sour cream and butter and have as a result earned a reputation for adding to weight gain. In these forms potatoes are a very high calorie food.
All about the potato
The potato– Solanum Tuberosa is a member of the nightshade family. Other members of the family include tomatoes, aubergines and bell-peppers. The starch from potatoes is called fecule.
Potatoes vary in size, shape, colour, starch content and flavour. There are about 100 edible varieties of this vegetable which are categorised into two main groups.
- These are large potatoes harvested when mature.
- Varieties of this type includes the Russet Burbank, the White Rose and the Katahdin.
- These potatoes have a greater degree of starch and a thicker skin.
- They also have a density of greater than 1.07 and sink in a 12% salt solution
- These potatoes have a greater lasting quality and can be stored.
- They, rather than new potatoes should be used to make dishes like Baked Potatoes and French Fries.
- These potatoes are harvested before they are mature.
- Varieties of this potato type includes the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac.
- The skins of these potatoes are typically thin and flaky and have less starch and a higher water content than mature potatoes
- These are also have a density that is less than 1.07 and will float in a 12% salt solution.
- These potatoes cannot be stored.
- They are best used in preparations that involve the addition of water like boiled, steamed and mashed potatoes.
There are other potato varieties that are called fingerling potatoes which are shaped like fingers.
Buying and Storing Potatoes
While buying potatoes look for the following characteristic
- Firm and true to variety
- Avoid wrinkled, leathery, sprouting or discoloured potatoes.
- Avoid those with injury or spade marks and too much dirt.
While storing potatoes
- Store potatoes in a dark dry place.
- The ideal storage temperature should be between 45 and 50 degrees F and between 7 and 10 degrees C.
- If the temperature is too high they will dehydrate and shrivel.
- Store potatoes in a gunny, paper or perforated plastic bag that will allow moisture to escape.
- Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator as the temperature will cause the starch to change to sugar, and give the potatoes an unpleasant taste. Should this happen, it can be reversed by keeping them at a higher temperature for about a week.
- Do not store potatoes near onions as the gasses from both will cause the other to degenerate.
- Stored correctly, potatoes will keep for upto 2 months. New potatoes will keep for upto a week.
- Check potatoes often and remove shrivelled sprouting ones.
- Boiled potatoes will keep well in the refrigerator for upto a week.
- Potatoes do not freeze well.
Tips for preparation
- If cut and peeled potatoes are not being cooked immediately, reserve them in a bowl of mildly acidulated water since they will discolour if exposed to the air.
- Avoid cooking potatoes in iron or aluminium pots and use a carbon-steel knife to prepare them. Iron and aluminium can also cause potatoes to discolour.
Quick Serving Ideas
- Potatoes can be boiled, baked, sautéed, mashed or fried.
- Quarter two medium sized potatoes brush them with olive oil and cook them at medium high heat on the bar-be-que for 7-10 minutes on each side
- Healthy French Fries- Cut the potatoes into the desired shape. Toss with a little olive oil, place on a baking tray and bake in the oven at 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C or Gas Mark 4 for 20 minutes Then take them out turn them over and return them to the oven for another 20 minutes. Season and enjoy!
- For low cal mashed potatoes use olive oil rather than butter.
Substitutes for potato
Potoato and your health
Health benefits of potatoes are a result of their nutrient content but there are other benefits of potatoes as well.
- According to Potato and Potato bandage potatoes are effective in treating burns. Boiled potato peel dressings have been used to treat skin wounds caused by burns. Dressings made of boiled potato skins have shown a decrease in pain levels, faster healing and lower bacterial contamination.
- According to The National Potato Board, potatoes are effective in de-pigmentation also. Potato juice is efficacious in the treatment of pigmented skin.
- Potatoes contain glycoalkaloids, toxic compounds, of which the most prevalent are solanine and chaconine. Cooking at high temperatures (over 170 °C or 340 °F) partly destroys these. The concentration of glycoalkaloid in wild potatoes suffices to produce toxic effects in humans. Glycoalkaloids occur in the greatest concentrations just underneath the skin of the tuber, and they increase with age and exposure to light.Glycoalkaloids may cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps and in severe cases coma and death; however, poisoning from potatoes occurs very rarely.
- More than 40% of the potato crop in the USA is sold to fast food chains like Macdonalds.
- The average person in the UK eats 104 kilos of potatoes a year.
- The largest producers of potatoes are the Russian Federation, Poland, India and China.
- Potatoes have high pesticide residue, so chose organic if you can.
- There is some anecdotal evidence to link the increase of arthritic symptoms with increased intake of the vegetables that are members of the Nightshade family. It may be useful therefore to reduce intake of potatoes, tomatoes and capsicum in those people who already have symptoms of arthritis.
- Do not buy or eat green potatoes. These are potentially dangerous.
- Potatoes are a member of the Deadly Nightshade family and since greenness is the result of inadequate covering and the chlorophyll that develops is also the area for the development of the poisonous alkaloid solanin, it is best to discard or return them. A Harmless Spud
- The alkaloid solanin can cause a whole host of health problems such as circulatory and respiratory depression, headaches and diarrhoea.
- New potatoes are especially likely to have solanin as they are harvested early. Inspect them carefully for discolouration or marks.
- The Encyclopaedia of Healing Foods: Dr. Michael Murray and Dr. Joseph Pizzorno with Lara Pizzorno, MA, LMT. Time Warner Books, 2005.
- A Harmless Spud
- For more details on the nutritional benefits of potatoes see Potatoes, Nutrition and Diet
- See International Yesr of the Potato - Hidden Treasure.
- For quick microwave recipes see Potatoes in 20 minutes
- Potatoes Not Prozac: A revolutionary new book examines the fact that we need to eat both complex carbohydrates and proteins in order to battle our sugar dependencies and stay lean and fit.