The World's Healthiest Foods
Potatoes

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 in the United States 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

 


Health Benefits

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, sour cream, melted cheese and bacon bits. Such treatment can make even baked potatoes a potential contributor to a heart attack. 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.

Our food ranking system qualified potatoes as a very good source of vitamin C, a good source of vitamin B6, copper, potassium, manganese, and dietary fiber.

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 exhibit activity against free radicals.

Vitamin B6--Building Your Cells

If only for its high concentration of vitamin B6--a cup of baked potato contains 21.0% of the daily value for this important nutrient--the potato earns high marks as a health-promoting food.

Vitamin B6 is involved in more than 100 enzymatic reactions. 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. Heme (the protein center of our red blood cells) and phospholipids (cell membrane components that enable messaging between cells) also depend on vitamin B6 for their creation.

Vitamin B6--Athletic Performance

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.

Vitamin B6--Brain Cell and Nervous System Activity

Vitamin B6 plays numerous roles in our nervous system, many of which involve neurological (brain cell) activity. B6 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--Cardiovascular and Cancer 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.

A single baked potato will also provide you with 11.7% of the daily value for 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.

Description

Whether it is mashed, baked or made into French fries, many people often think of the potato as a comfort food. This sentiment probably inspired the potato's scientific name, Solanum tuberosum, since solanum is derived from a Latin word meaning “soothing”. The potato's name also reflects that it belongs to the solanaceae family whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos.

There 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.

History

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 good 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.

The potato was thought to have been 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 and the one that Americans consume more of pound for pound than any other. Currently, the main producers of potatoes include the Russian Federation, Poland, India, China and the United States.

How to Select and Store

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

Tips for Preparing Potatoes:

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 its 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.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Purée roasted garlic, cooked potatoes and olive oil together to make delicious garlic mashed potatoes. Season to taste.

Potatoes are a featured ingredient in the classic dish, Salad Nicoise, that pairs new potatoes with chunks of tuna fish and steamed green beans dressed lightly with oil and vinegar.

Toss steamed, diced potato with olive oil and fresh herbs of your choice.

Safety

Potatoes and Pesticides

Even though pesticides are present in food at very small trace levels, their negative impact on health is well documented. The liver’s ability to process other toxins, the cells’ ability to produce energy, and the nerves’ ability to send messages can all be compromised by pesticide exposure. Individuals wanting to avoid these health risks may want to avoid consumption of potatoes unless grown organically, since potatoes are among the 20 foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found. Thorough scrubbing of the skins of non-organic potatoes with a natural bristle vegetable brush and cool running water will help remove some, but not all of the pesticide residues.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Potato, Baked, with Skin
1.00 cup
132.98 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
vitamin C 15.74 mg 26.2 3.6 very good
vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) 0.42 mg 21.0 2.8 good
copper 0.37 mg 18.5 2.5 good
potassium 509.96 mg 14.6 2.0 good
manganese 0.28 mg 14.0 1.9 good
tryptophan 0.04 g 12.5 1.7 good
dietary fiber 2.93 g 11.7 1.6 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

References

  • Breithaupt DE, Bamedi A. Carotenoids and carotenoid esters in potatoes (Solanum tuberosum L.): new insights into an ancient vegetable. J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Nov 20;50(24):7175-81.
  • Ensminger AH, Ensminger, ME, Kondale JE, Robson JRK. Foods & Nutriton Encyclopedia. Pegus Press, Clovis, California.
  • Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986.
  • Fortin, Francois, Editorial Director. The Visual Foods Encyclopedia. Macmillan, New York.
  • Liu YW, Han CH, Lee MH et al. Patatin, the Tuber Storage Protein of Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.), Exhibits Antioxidant Activity in Vitro. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Jul 16;51(15):4389-93.
  • Tudela JA, Cantos E, Espin JC et al. Induction of antioxidant flavonol biosynthesis in fresh-cut potatoes. Effect of domestic cooking. J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 9;50(21):5925-31.
  • Wood, Rebecca. The Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Press; 1988.

This page was updated on: 2004-12-27 13:08:58
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation