All white potatoes are collectively known as Irish Potatoes even though they originated in the Andean mountain region of South America. Researchers estimate that they have been cultivated for about 4,000 to 7,000 years by the native people of that area.
When they hear the word “potato”, people usually think of the white russet or perhaps the red creamer (also with white flesh), but white-fleshed potatoes are somewhat of a minority. Even the now popular Yukon Gold variety with its buttery golden goodness is but a tiny glimpse of the orgy of tastes and colors potatoes provide. Some stores now carry variety packs of fingerlings (3-4 inch size) and I’ve found bags of gorgeous purple-blue delights. Just think of the Mardi Gras potato salad you could make with broccoli florets and some tuber ingenuity!
A popular food staple for thousands of years, most of the potatoes consumed in the USA are salted French fries and chips. Even the otherwise healthy baked potato is drowned in artery clogging fats. Once you learn how healthy this vegetable is, you just may re-think how spuds could be a part of your healthy eating plan.
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.
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Since the popularity of the low-carb-high-protein diet, potatoes have been sidelined and considered an empty white starch. New research methods have identified 60 phytochemicals and vitamins in 100 wild and commercially grown varieties. Some even compare favorably with broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts when you look at nutrients that help fight cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and certain cancers.
“Potatoes have been cultivated for thousands of years, and we thought traditional crops were pretty well understood, but this surprise finding shows that even the most familiar foods might conceal a hoard of health-promoting chemicals.”
IFR Food Scientist Dr. Fred Mellon
Potatoes and their high concentration of B6 support a wide variety of body functions:
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.
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Much like tomatoes and corn, 16th century Europeans did not take to potatoes right away (except for Italy and Germany). Belonging to the nightshade family, they were thought to be poisonous and some people even thought that they brought on leprosy.
When they are exposed to bright lights, potatoes can develop green splotches (solanine toxin – some sources consider it deadly in certain quantities). Symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, headache, and fever – just cut off and discard all green skin and discolored flesh before cooking.
An 18th century Frenchman named Parmentier is credited with promoting the root vegetable in the French court. Also, a member of the Royal Society (A British group) is credited with inventing a thick soup of potatoes, barley, peas and vinegar which became very popular with German peasants. Potatoes did not become a popular food crop in America until the 19th century.
A blight set off the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-46 which claimed almost three quarters of a million lives. This caused hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens to emigrate in order to survive and many settled on the eastern coast of North America.
Although the USA leads the world in potato consumption, they are in some of the most unhealthy foods. With just a little effort and a few substitutions, you can re-tool your recipes and create healthier meals for yourself and your family.
Since the skin is the source of so much fiber and many nutrients, prepare meals that include the skin whenever possible. Look for organic selections to reduce exposure to pesticides.
A baked potato can be the backbone of a nutritious, satisfying and very inexpensive meal. Open it up completely and smother it with a low fat chili, pasta sauce, beans or stew. Or try tossing on some cooked broccoli and spoon over some sharp cheddar cheese sauce. Sprinkle on a tiny bit of cayenne pepper for added punch. You are sure to develop some potato favorites of your own.
French fry image: Microsoft Corporation
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