This versatile and adaptable plant is an important food crop worldwide. Properly prepared, it is a great addition to any diet.
Wild potatoes originated on the cold western slopes of the Andes Mountains and were gradually domesticated by valley communities that tamed the llama and improved beans and maize. So writes Bill Laws in Potato: All you need to know in one concise manual (2019).
The Andean people grew potatoes in hand-built terraced fields filled with soil from the alluvial valleys below, Laws writes. The early potatoes were poisonous but the Indigenous people gradually learned to cultivate out the toxic strains of the tubers and to preserve some of the crop.
The Spanish conquistadors brought them to Europe in the 1500’s. At first, the potato was treated as not fit for human consumption. To prevent famine during the 17th century European farmers began planting potatoes. They were promoted in France in the 18th century where they were discovered as well by Benjamin Franklin. By the end of the 18th century the potato had become a diet staple throughout Europe.
Potato blight also came from Peru. It spread throughout Ireland in the 19 century, killing crops and about one million people who starved to death. Another two million fled to America, Canada, and Australia.
“The humble potato has fallen in popularity in recent years, due to the interest in low-carb foods. However, the fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals it provides can help ward off disease and benefit human health,” writes Megan Ware in Medical News Today. Her summary:
10 HEALTH BENEFITS OF POTATOES
1. Bone health
The iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, and zinc in potatoes help to build and maintain bone structure and strength.
2. Blood pressure
A low sodium intake is essential for maintaining a healthy blood pressure, and potassium encourages vasodilation, or the widening of the blood vessels. Most North Americans do not meet the daily 4,700mg recommendation. The potassium, calcium, and magnesium in potatoes have been found to decrease blood pressure.
3. Heart health
The potato’s fibre, potassium, vi- tamin C, and vitamin B6 content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health. Fibre helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, decreasing the risk of heart disease. A higher intake of potassium and a lower intake of sodium have been linked to a reduced risk of all-cause mortality and heart disease.
Choline in potatoes helps with muscle movement, mood, learning, and memory. It also assists in maintaining the structure of cellular membranes, transmitting nerve impulses, the absorption of fat, and early brain development.
Potatoes contain folate that plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair, so it pre- vents many types of cancer cells from forming due to mutations in the DNA. Fibre intake is associated with a lowered risk of colorectal cancer. Vitamin C and quercetin also function as antioxidants, protecting cells against damage from free radicals.
6. Digestion and regularity
The fibre content in potatoes helps to prevent constipation and promote reg- ularity for a healthy digestive tract.
7. Weight management and satiety
Dietary fibres increase satiety and reduce appetite, so a person feels fuller for longer and is less likely to consume more calories.
Potatoes are a great source of vitamin B6, which plays a vital role in energy metabolism by breaking down carbo- hydrates and proteins into glucose and amino acids that are more easily utilized for energy.
Vitamin C works as an antioxidant to help prevent damage caused by the sun, pollution, and smoke. Vitamin C also helps collagen smooth wrinkles and improve overall skin texture.
Research has found that vitamin C may help reduce the severity and duration of a cold. Potatoes are a good source of vitamin C.
Nutrition and Potatoes
How healthful a potato is in the diet depends to some extent on what is added or how it is cooked.
SODIUM: Whole, unprocessed potatoes contain very little sodium. However, this is not true of processed potato products, such as French fries and potato chips.
ALPHA-LIPOIC ACID: Potatoes also contain alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), which helps the body to convert glucose into energy. Some evidence suggests that alpha-lipoic acid can help control blood glucose levels, improve vasodilation, protect against retinopathy in diabetic patients, and preserve brain and nerve tissue.
QUERCETIN: Quercetin, a flavonoid found in potato skin, appears to have an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect that protects the body’s cells from damage by free radicals.
ANTIOXIDANTS: Potatoes contain vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants may help prevent cell damage and cancer and promote healthy digestion and cardiovascular functions.
FIBRE: The fibre in potatoes helps to maintain a healthy digestive system and circulation.
CALORIES: A medium potato contains around 164 calories and 30% of the recommended daily B6 intake.
BAKING: Use starchy potatoes, such as russets.
ROASTING, MASHING, OR BAKING: Use all-purpose potatoes, such as Yukon gold.
POTATO SALAD: Waxy potatoes, such as red, new, or fingerling potatoes, keep their shape better.
Select potatoes that are firm, unbruised, and relatively smooth and round. Avoid any that show signs of decay or potatoes with a greenish hue. Buy potatoes that are unpackaged and unwashed, to avoid bacterial buildup. Washing potatoes early removes the protective coating from the skins.
Store between 45 to 50°F (7 and 10°C), in a dark, dry environment, such as a cellar or pantry. Exposure to sunlight can lead to the formation of solanine, which is toxic. Storing potatoes in the refrigerator causes their starch to be converted to sugar. This can give an unpleasant flavor. Fully grown potatoes have a shelf life of up to two months.
The food value of potato is mostly in the skin, so leave it on. Scrub potatoes under running water and remove any bruises or deep eyes with a paring knife. Use a stainless steel knife to avoid discolouration.
Potato Risks: Nothing is perfect
The potato plant, along with the toma- to and eggplant, belongs to the night- shade family. Some of these plants are poisonous, and the potato was once thought to be inedible. The shoots and leaves of potatoes are toxic and should not be eaten.
SOLANINE: Potatoes that are sprouting or have green discolouration are likely to contain solanine, a toxic compound that has been found to cause circulatory and respiratory problems, headaches, muscle cramps, and diarrhea. If the potato has shrunken or has a green hue, it should not be eaten.
ACRYLAMIDE: When cooked above 248°F (120°C), potatoes produce a chemical known as acrylamide, which is found in plastics, glues, dyes, and cigarette smoke. It has been linked to the development of several cancers, has neurotoxic properties, and may im- pact genes and reproductive health, according to the American Cancer Society.
POTASSIUM: Damaged kidneys may be unable to filter excess potassium from the blood, and this can be fatal.
FERTILIZERS: Potatoes grown in heavily fertilized soil may contain high levels of heavy metal contamination.
*Potato chips, French fries, and processed potato products are likely to be high in acrylamides, fat and sodium. Avoid them to reduce acrylamide exposure.
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Author: David Holt is associate publisher of Optimyz Magazine and an avid writer on topics relating to health the human potential. An avid kayaker he can often be found on a lake somewhere in Nova Scotia in the summer months.