Are Potatoes A Healthy Choice?

Potatoes are an important food staple and the number one vegetable crop in the world. There are more than 5000 varieties potatoes around the world that range in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. The potato belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos. Potatoes are technically tubers and not root vegetables. Essentially, they are enlarged stems that are higher in starch and complex carbohydrates.

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 somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 years. 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. 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.

Health Benefits of Potatoes

Unfortunately, most people eat potatoes in the form of greasy French fries or potato chips. 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. In a future newsletter we will talk about cooking oils and how to select healthy oils for different types of cooking – including frying.

Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C, as well as dietary fiber and pantothenic acid. Potatoes also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity with some darker skinned potatoes containing more antioxidants than others.

Vitamin B6 is involved in more than 100 enzymatic reactions, is essential for the formation of virtually all new cells in the body and plays numerous roles in our nervous system, many of which involve neurological (brain cell) activity. B6 is necessary for the creation of certain neurotransmitters that the nervous system relies on to transmit messages from one nerve to the next. Some of these neurotransmitters include serotonin, a lack of which is linked to depression; melatonin, the hormone needed for a good night's sleep; epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones that help us respond to stress; and GABA, which is needed for normal brain function.

A single baked potato also provides 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 creamy center.

Potatoes are even a complete protein, which is hard to get outside animal foods.

So many to choose from!

With so many different types of potatoes, how does one choose? We normally buy potatoes based on how we'll be cooking them - baking, roasting, mashing, or for use in salads or stews . The decision usually comes down to the starch content which is usually divided into floury and waxy.

Floury potatoes are those you want for baking, roasting or mashing. They tend to be high in starch, low in moisture and low in sugar content. Floury potatoes include Russets, Yukon Golds, Purple Creamers, and Kennebecs.

Waxy potatoes are great for using in salads, stews and roasts because they don't fall apart when boiled and hold their shape well. They have a high moisture content and low in starch. Some examples of waxy potatoes include Russian Bananas and Peruvian Purples.

Sweet potatoes are actually part of the morning glory family and are different from yams that are from yet a third botanical family. Nutritionally, sweet potatoes are comparable to white potatoes, however the darker varieties have more antioxidants, minerals and Vitamin A. They also have a higher sugar content.

How to select and store potatoes

Potatoes should be firm, well shaped and relatively smooth, and should be free of decay that often manifests as wet or dry rot. In addition, they should not be sprouting or have green coloration since this indicates that they may contain the toxic glycoalkaloids that have been found to not only impart an undesirable taste, but can also cause a host of different health conditions such as circulatory and respiratory, depression, headaches and diarrhea. Peeling the potatoes will get rid of this since these chemicals are mostly found in the skins.

Potatoes should be stored in a cool dark spot, but not in the refrigerator, as their starch content will turn to sugar giving them an undesirable taste. The only exception to the no refrigeration rule is making oven fries because the raised sugar level will help ensure surface browning. In addition, do not store potatoes near onions, as the gases that they each emit will cause the degradation of one another. Wherever you store them, they should be kept in a burlap or paper bag.

Another point to remember is that due to conventional farming practices non-organic potatoes are one of the foods that test extremely high in chemical pesticides. So remember to select organic, whenever possible and minimize the consumption of conventionally grown potatoes. For more in formation on which foods are most affected by high levels of chemical pesticides, herbicides google “The Dirty Dozen.”

Why potatoes get a bad rap. Let's discuss....

  • White potatoes are starchy: While it's true that white potatoes are very high in carbohydrates, it’s not an argument against eating them. There’s nothing wrong with carbs for a healthy, active person. Carbohydrates as a macronutrient aren’t dangerous at all; the real problem is the toxins that often come packaged with them (think potato chips and French fries). The only people who might want to avoid carbs entirely are people with metabolic disorders like diabetes.
  • Sweet Potatoes are better for you: When comparing white and sweet potatoes, many people also like to point out that white potatoes have a very high glycemic index. Glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much a food increases blood glucose. If you compare two foods, the one with the higher glycemic index is more “carby:” it raises blood sugar more and thus has more potential to set off metabolic complications if consumed in excess. It is true that white potatoes have a higher GI, but sweet potatoes have more fructose and sucrose, and less glucose and starch. Glucose is much more available to the body, and more easily absorbed for muscle recovery after exercise. Fructose isn’t bad in the natural amounts found in fruit or sweet potatoes, but it’s still not ideal as a carb source. White potatoes might have a higher GI, but that doesn’t actually indicate that they’re any less healthy. It's really a toss up; both are good for us, but too much of a good thing can be bad.
  • White potatoes belong to the nightshade family: Nightshade veggies contain a type of chemical called glycoalkaloids that can trigger symptoms in people who are intolerant to them. This is legitimate and true, but it only applies to a few people. Nightshades are bad news if you have an autoimmune disorder and may play a role in chronic joint pain, but most healthy people can eat nightshade vegetables without any problems. It’s also worthwhile noting that most of the glycoalkaloids in potatoes are in the skin, so you could just peel your potatoes to avoid the vast majority of them.

Bottomline:

If a reasonable amount of starch fits into your eating plan and makes you feel energetic and vibrant, there’s nothing wrong with mixing up your potato intake to include both white varieties as well sweets. Remember that moderation and variation are key.

Be sure to try the Russian Potato Salad Recipe.

Did you miss the previous Nutrition articles?  Scroll through our Blog Posts to learn about How To Eat, What to Eat and more.