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.
There are about about 100 varieties of edible potatoes. They range in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. They are often classified as either mature potatoes (the large potatoes that we are generally familiar with) and new potatoes (those that are harvested before maturity and are of a much smaller size). Some of the popular varieties of mature potatoes include the Russet Burbank, the 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 are a very popular food source. Unfortunately, most people eat potatoes in the form of greasy French fries or potato chips, and even baked potatoes are typically loaded down with fats such as butter and sour cream. This makes even baked potatoes a potential contributor to a heart attack. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in 2017 that found that people who ate fried potatoes twice a week saw an increased risk of death. The study examined potato intake in 4,400 people between the ages of 45 and 79. Researchers found that those who ate fried potatoes – French fries, hash browns, home fries – were more than twice as likely to have died.
Take away the extra fat and deep frying, and a baked potato is low in calories and high in fiber.
One medium baked potato (6.1 ounces or 173 grams), including the skin, provides:
- Calories: 161
- Fat: 0.2 grams
- Protein: 4.3 grams
- Carbs: 36.6 grams
- Fiber: 3.8 grams
- Vitamin C: 28% of the RDI (Recommended Daily Intake)
- Vitamin B6: 27% of the RDI
- Potassium: 26% of the RDI
- Manganese: 19% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 12% of the RDI
- Phosphorus: 12% of the RDI
- Niacin: 12% of the RDI
- Folate: 12% of the RDI
The skin of the potatoes contains many of the vitamins and minerals, so peeling potatoes can significantly reduce their nutritional content.
Potatoes 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 fight free radicals.
Potatoes contain a special type of starch known as resistant starch. This starch is not broken down and fully absorbed by the body. Instead, it reaches the large intestine where it becomes a source of nutrients for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Here it is converted into the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which has been linked to reduced inflammation in the colon, improved colon defenses and a lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Research has linked resistant starch to reducing insulin resistance, which, in turn, improves blood sugar control. In an animal study, mice fed resistant starch showed reduced insulin resistance. This means their bodies were more efficient at removing excess sugar from the blood.
A study of people with type 2 diabetes found consuming a meal with resistant starch helped better remove excess blood sugar after a meal. In another study, ten people were fed 30 grams of resistant starch daily over a four-week period. Scientists found that resistant starch reduced insulin resistance by 33%.
You can also increase the resistant starch content of potatoes. To do this, store boiled potatoes in the fridge overnight and consume them cold.
Potatoes are naturally gluten-free, which makes them an excellent food choice for people with celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Vitamin B6 is involved in more than 100 enzymatic reactions and one serving of potatoes gives you 27% of your RDI. Enzymes are proteins that help chemical reactions take place, so vitamin B6 is active virtually everywhere in the body.
Vitamin B6 plays numerous roles in our nervous system, many of which involve brain cell activity. B-6 is necessary for the creation of amines, a type of messaging molecule or neurotransmitter that the nervous system relies on to transmit messages from one nerve to the next. Some of the amine-derived neurotransmitters that require vitamin B6 for their production are 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.
Vitamin B6 plays another critically important role in methylation, a chemical process in which methyl groups are transferred from one molecule to another. Methylation 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.
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.
So, don’t shy away from potatoes! They are good for you.
How to Buy
Potatoes should be firm, well shaped and relatively smooth, and should be free of decay. In addition, they should not be sprouting or have green coloration since this indicates that they may contain the toxic alkaloid solanine that tastes bad and can cause circulatory and respiratory depression, headaches and diarrhea.
Always purchase of certified organically grown foods. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including potatoes.
Sometimes stores will offer already cleaned potatoes. These should be avoided since when their protective coating is removed by washing, potatoes are more vulnerable to bacteria. In addition, already cleaned potatoes are also more expensive, and since you will have to wash them again before cooking, you will be paying an unnecessary additional cost.
Since new potatoes are harvested before they are fully mature, they are much more susceptible to damage. Be especially careful when purchasing these to buy ones that are free from discoloration and injury.
How to Store
The ideal way to store potatoes is in a dark, dry place between 45F to 50F as higher temperatures, even room temperature, will cause the potatoes to sprout and dehydrate prematurely. While most people do not have root cellars that provide 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. If you have more than you need for a week, try storing them in a cool, dark closet or the basement. Potatoes should definitely not be exposed to sunlight as this can cause the development of the toxic alkaloid solanine to form.
Potatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator, as their starch content will turn to sugar. In addition, do not store potatoes near onions, as the gases that they each emit will cause the degradation of one another. It is best to store them in a burlap or paper bag.
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.
Cooked potatoes will keep fresh in the refrigerator for several days. Potatoes do not freeze well.
How to Cook
The potato skin is a concentrated source of dietary fiber, so to get the most nutritional value from this vegetable, don’t peel it and consume both the flesh and the skin. Just scrub the potato under cold running water right before cooking and then remove any deep eyes or bruises with a paring knife. If you must peel it, 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 to which you have added a little bit of lemon juice, as this will prevent their flesh from darkening and will also help to maintain their shape during cooking. As potatoes are also sensitive to certain metals that may cause them to discolor, avoid cooking them in iron or aluminum pots or using a carbon steel knife to cut them.
Ideas for cooking potatoes:
- Purée roasted garlic, cooked potatoes and olive oil together to make delicious garlic mashed potatoes. Season to taste.
- Make a vegan Salad Nicoise with new potatoes and steamed green beans dressed lightly with oil and vinegar.
- Toss steamed, diced potato with olive oil and fresh herbs of your choice.