Potatoes originated in the Andean mountain region of South America. It was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. At first it was not widely consumed, as it belonged to the night shade family, of which some species are poisonous. It is said that the potato promoted economic development by helping the industrial revolution in England. It was so easy to cultivate and provided ample calories, thus liberating workers from the land and provided labour for the new factories. Today it is one of the most popular vegetables throughout the world. In October 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space, to help feed astronauts on long space voyages.
The potato is a good source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, copper, potassium, manganese and dietary fibre. It contains a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity.
Health benefits of Potato
The potato is a very good source of B6. Vitamin B6 helps a lot of systems in our body like cardiovascular, digestive, immune, muscular and nervous system. It is very critical for new cell formation. It protects the heart and plays a very important role in brain cell and nervous system activity. The B6 vitamin is needed to make the hormone serotonin and norepinephrine, which affect mood. Thus eating potatoes may help with depression and stress.
The vitamin C in potatoes acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants protect us against damage caused by harmful molecules, as well as toxic chemicals and pollutants. Vitamin C protects us from immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and eye diseases.
Many of the beneficial phytochemicals in potatoes are contained in the potato skin, which is also the primary source of dietary fibre. Potato has both soluble and insoluble fibre. Potatoes are rich in fibre, but only when eaten with the skin.
Kukoamine, a compound found in potatoes, is said to have blood pressure lowering compounds. UK scientists have identified previously unknown compounds in the potato that are also found in a herbal used to lower blood pressure. Potatoes also contain potassium which acts as a vasodilator and reduces blood pressure. It is said to have more potassium than a banana.
Potatoes contain cartenoids, flavanoids and caffeic acid. A flavonoid-rich diet has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, cardio-vascular disease and other chronic diseases. One of the key flavonoids in potatoes is quercetin, which has been linked to a lower risk of asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.
In spite of having all these health benefits, most of us do not absorb the nutrients because of the way it is cooked. Much of the nutrients in a potato is in the skin. Potassium, a mineral that helps lower blood pressure is found in the skin of the potato. It is also a good source of fibre.
Potatoes should be baked or steamed to retain most of its nutrients. Baking is the best. Boiling and cooking a peeled potato leads to loss of nutrients as most of the water soluble nutrients like B-complex vitamins, vitamin C and potassium leach out into the water that is used for boiling it. If you do want to boil it, it makes sense to use the water in a soup or as a stock for cooking. Also, do not leave the chopped peeled potatoes to soak for long.
According to forbes.com, “Storing potatoes in the fridge can increase the amount of acrylamide that forms when they’re cooked.” Keep potatoes outside the refrigerator in a dark, cool place, such as a closet or a pantry. The FDA suggests soaking potato slices in water for 15-30 minutes before cooking to reduce the amount of acrylamide that will form.”
Health risks of Potato
Potato is a nutrient-rich complex carbohydrate and plays an important role in a healthy diet. Starches usually take longer to digest, so in most complex carbohydrates they don’t cause a boost in blood sugar. But unfortunately, the starch in potatoes is easier to break down and digest than many other starches and hence, the carbohydrates in potatoes are digested very rapidly by the body thus causing rapid spikes in blood sugar. While healthy individuals can tolerate them in moderation, the rapid rise in blood sugar can lead to increased insulin production, which is why diabetics are discouraged from eating potatoes.
Because of this rise and fall in blood sugar, people may also tend to feel hungry soon, leading to over eating. Eating with the skin helps, as it is high in fibre. Soluble fibre becomes gel-like in the stomach, which fills you up and helps you feel full longer.
It has been recommended by some nutritionists to replace grains with potatoes and to not use potato as the only vegetable on your plate along with grains. Even when you cook potato in a healthy way, it can lead to health problems in persons with obesity or diabetes. Hence it makes sense to not make it unhealthy by frying it and adding butter or cheese to it.
If the potatoes are sprouting, you should cut out the eyes and the sprout before cooking the potato.
Potatoes turn green when they have too much exposure to light. Never eat potatoes that are spoiled or have turned green below the skin as they are poisonous.
Potatoes should also not be stored around onions because both vegetables emit natural gases that cause the other to decay.
Studies have shown that potatoes, which cooked above 120 degrees C or 248 degrees F, produce a chemical known as acrylamide. This compound, has been found to play a role in the development of several cancers, and and may also have negative effects on genes and reproductive health. Fried potato products, such as potato chips and French fries, are high in acrylamides. “Decreasing cooking time, blanching potatoes before frying, and postdrying (drying in a hot air oven after frying) have been shown to decrease the acrylamide content of some foods” says the website, cancer.gov
Potato is a good source of potassium. However high levels of potassium in the body is not good for those with kidney problems, as the kidneys may not be able to filter excess potassium from the blood. This could be fatal.
Knowing both the benefits and risks, help us choose food wisely. Since the overall eating pattern is very important in achieving good health, we should eat a diet with a variety of foods, instead of depending on individual foods to keep us healthy.