Let’s face it… most of us LOVE potatoes! Whether mashed, baked, roasted, or anything else, people often consider potatoes as the ultimate comfort food. It’s a huge food staple and arguably the #1 vegetable crop in the world! Potatoes are available pretty much year-round these days and there are literally thousands of potato varieties. Most of us eat only a handful: Russet, white, red, purple, fingerlings, and then there is the sweet potato, which is a whole other topic.
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 known as a Tuber and is designed to provide food for the green leafy portion of the plant. Most people are unaware, if allowed to flower and fruit, the potato plant will bear an inedible fruit resembling a tomato!
Potato Health Benefits
Depending on the form of how you eat potatoes dictates good or bad health. We all know that greasy French fries or potato chips are bad for us. Baked potatoes are fabulous for you, but typically people load them up with fats like butter, sour cream, melted cheese and bacon bits. Yikes! It’s fun to eat, but terrible for you and even a recipe for a heart attack if you’re not careful. But take away the extra fat and deep frying, and a baked potato is an exceptionally healthful low calorie, high fiber food that offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Potatoes are a great source of vitamin B6, potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber, and pantothenic acid. They also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity. Among these important health-promoting compounds are carotenoids, flavonoids, and caffeic acid, as well as unique tuber storage proteins, such as Patatin, which exhibit activity against free radicals.
1 medium sized cooked potato contains the following:
Calories 163 % Daily Value*
Total Fat 0.2 g 0%
Saturated fat 0.1 g 0%
Polyunsaturated fat 0.1 g
Monounsaturated fat 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Sodium 13 mg 0%
Potassium 897 mg 25%
Total Carbohydrate 37 g 12%
Dietary fiber 4.7 g 18%
Sugar 1.7 g
Protein 4.3 g 8%
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 70%
Vitamin D 0%
Vitamin B-6 30%
Vitamin B-12 0%
Potatoes Can Help Lower Blood-Pressure
Studies have surprisingly identified blood pressure lowering compounds in potatoes called Kukoamines. Previously only found in an exotic herb called Lycium Chinense (the bark is used to make an infusion in Chinese herbal medicine). Kukoamines were found in potatoes using a new type of research called Metabolomics. (Tomatoes also belong to the Solanaceae family and were also found to contain Kukoamines).
Great for Cell Building & Aiding the Nervous System
One medium potato contains over 1/2 of a milligram of vitamin B6, making the potato a health-promoting food! Vitamin B6 is involved in over 100 enzymatic reactions, which is very surprising. Enzymes are proteins that help chemical reactions take place, so vitamin B6 is active virtually everywhere in the body. Many of the building blocks of protein, amino acids, require B6 for their synthesis, as do the nucleic acids used in the creation of our DNA. Because amino and nucleic acids are such critical parts of new cell formation, vitamin B6 is essential for the formation of virtually all new cells in the body. It can even help improve brain cell and nervous system functions.
Potatoes Can Aid in Cardiovascular Protection
Vitamin B6 plays another critically important role in Methylation, a chemical process in which methyl groups are transferred from one molecule to another. Many essential chemical events in the body are made possible by methylation, for example, genes can be switched on and turned off in this way. This is particularly 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 methyl groups to toxic substances to make them less toxic and encourage their elimination from the body.
Methylation is also important to cardiovascular health. Methylation changes a potentially dangerous molecule called homocysteine into other, benign substances. Since homocysteine can directly damage blood vessel walls greatly increasing the progression of atherosclerosis, 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, diets high in vitamin B6-rich foods are associated with overall lower rates of heart disease, even when homocysteine levels are normal, most likely because of all the other beneficial activities of this energetic B vitamin.
Did You Know? A single baked potato will also provide you with over 3 grams of fiber, but remember the fiber in potatoes is mostly in their skin. 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 delicious center!
Potatoes Are Great for Athletic Performance
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 a key player in athletic performance and endurance.
Translating the potato’s scientific name, Solanum tuberosum, “Solanum” is derived from the Latin word meaning “soothing” and “Tuberosum, meaning “tuber”, the potato has been deemed the ultimate comfort food! Potatoes belong to the Solanaceae family, whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos.
There are over 100 varieties of edible potatoes that range in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. They are often classified as either mature potatoes (the large potatoes we see regularly in markets) and new potatoes (those harvested before maturity, which are a much smaller size). Some of the popular varieties of mature potatoes include the Russet Burbank, White Rose and the Katahdin, while the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac are two types of new potatoes. There are also delicate Fingerling varieties available which, as their name suggests, are finger-shaped.
The skin of potatoes is generally brown, red or yellow, and may be smooth or rough, while the flesh is yellow or white. There are also other varieties available that feature purple-grey skin and a beautiful deep violet flesh.
As potatoes have a neutral starchy flavor, they serve as a good complement to many meals. Their texture varies slightly depending upon their preparation, but it can be generally described as rich and creamy.
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 a great 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. Americans, in particular, consume more potatoes pound-for-pound than any other country. Currently, the main producers of potatoes include the Russia, Poland, India, China and of course the United States.
How to Select and Store
Always buy potatoes either individually or from a bulk display. Superstores like Costco have bags of potatoes stored in a burlap or cloth-like knit bag, allowing the potatoes to breathe. If you don’t have burlap or cloth knit, a paper bag can also work for storage.
Did You Know? You should never store potatoes near onions, as the gases they each emit will cause the degradation of one another!
Potatoes should be firm, well shaped, fairly smooth, and free of bad spots, decay or dry rot. In addition, they should not be sprouting or have green coloration, which indicates that they may contain the toxic alkaloid Solanine that has been found to not only impart an undesirable taste, but can also cause various health conditions such as circulatory and respiratory issues, headaches and even diarrhea.
Never Buy Pre-washed Potatoes
Once the skins are washed off, potatoes begin to lose their protection much faster. They become more susceptible to decay and will go bad much faster. The potatoes will breed bacteria more quickly and you will have to wash them again before using them. It’s better to buy them and store them without washing for maximum value.
Since new (smaller) potatoes are harvested before they are fully mature, they are much more susceptible to damage. Be especially careful when purchasing these, buying only the ones that are free from discoloration and injury.
Go Organic or Locally Grown Whenever Possible
At Raw Foods, we always encourage the purchase of organically grown foods whenever possible, and potatoes are no exception. If organic potatoes are hard to find in your area, you may be able to find an organic grower at a farmer’s market, or a Locally Grown resource. Always ask questions of your grocer or produce provider and if possible, look for the Certified Organic label on the product, especially in regular stores.
The ideal way to store potatoes is in a cool dark, dry place at an optimal temperature of around 40-60 degrees. Higher temperatures can cause the potatoes to sprout and dehydrate prematurely. While most of us don’t have root cellars for this type of environment, to maximize the potato’s quality and storage, you should aim to find a place as close as possible to these conditions. Storing them in a cool, dark closet, pantry drawer or basement may be suitable alternatives. Potatoes should definitely not be exposed to sunlight as this can cause the development of the toxic alkaloid Solanine to form.
Do not Refrigerate Potatoes for Storage!
If potatoes are kept refrigerated, especially in plastic, they will go bad faster and you may not easily spot ones that are bruising or decaying. Additionally, the potato’s starch content will convert to sugar much faster, giving them a funny taste.
Mature potatoes stored properly can keep up to two months. Check on the potatoes frequently, removing any that have sprouted or shriveled as spoiled ones can quickly affect the quality of the others. New potatoes are much more perishable and will only keep for one week.
Note: You can refrigerate cooked potato leftovers for a few days, but they don’t hold up well in the freezer. So be sure to eat them up quickly if the potatoes have been cooked.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking Potatoes
The potato skin is a concentrated source of dietary fiber, so to get the most nutritional value, try not to peel them. Just scrub the potato under cold to warm running water thoroughly right before cooking, and be sure to remove any deep eyes or bruises with a paring knife. If you must peel the potatoes, 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.
Potatoes should be cleaned and cut right before cooking in order to avoid the discoloration that occurs with exposure to air. If you cannot cook them immediately after cutting, place them in a bowl of cold water and add a little bit of lemon juice. This will stop the potato flesh from darkening and will also help to maintain their shape during cooking. As potatoes are also sensitive to certain metals may cause them to discolor. Avoid cooking them in iron or aluminum pots, and avoid using carbon steel knives to cut them.
How to Enjoy Potatoes: A Few Quick Serving Ideas
There are fabulous recipes all over the Internet for potatoes! You can bake them, sautee them with olive oil, mash them with garlic, the sky is the limit! Bake the potatoes whole or cut them up into thin slices.
There is nothing quite like a delicious potato dish to make your day. So cook them up to your heart’s content! Try to really focus your recipes on healthy flavorful, seasonings and enjoy!
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