Potatoes, taters, spuds and yams
Updated: Apr 3
Without the potato, I wouldn't be here today, nor would many other Irish descendants. This little starchy tuber has become one of the main staples of the Western diet, doing for our meals what rice has done in the East.
Potatoes originated 10,000 years ago in Peru. They became a staple food for native Americans and were imported to Europe in the 16th century. The Europeans grew to love its taste and ease of growing, and it took off all over the continent. Many of my ancestors came from Ireland, where the potato was critical to the poorer people there. In 1845 a blight hit the crop worldwide and nearly half of the potatoes were ruined. My great-grandfather and many like him immigrated to the US because of this blight and the rest is history. (The story of the Irish potato famine is sad tale that goes much deeper than a simple plant disease- shame on England for making things much, much worse,)
Potatoes are now an American staple, found incorporated into many meals including gourmet cuisine and fast food. They are a unique blend of vitamins, starches, and nutrients that are both filling and bland enough to enhance with other flavors. Their versatility has led to such dishes as hash browned potatoes, tater tots, au gratin potatoes, potato cakes, potato salad, and potato bread. The average American eats some 140 pounds of potatoes every year and it's the number four crop worldwide. Here are some fun potato facts:
- Potatoes can be used to make vodka through a fermentation process, though not all vodka's are made that way. Some are made with grains.
- Batteries can be made from zinc, copper and a single potato- producing a charge large enough to power a cell phone. The reaction of potato acids and certain metals release energy.
- The first toy ever advertised on television was Mr. Potato Head. In 1952 this toy used real potatoes and plastic parts to create fanciful potato people, and in the 60's they converted to the plastic potato body that we see today.
- Potatoes you get in the store are technically still alive- just dormant. That's why they need to be kept refrigerated so they don't start sprouting.
- There are nearly 5,000 varieties of potato that have been cultivated, and they can come in a variety of colors including blue, purple, yellow, red, and brown.
- Because of their low light requirements and high carb content, potatoes are the first food grown in outer space- aboard the space shuttle in 1995. NASA is looking to potatoes to fuel trips to Mars and beyond.
So are potatoes good for you? As with anything else, it depends on how they are cooked and how much you eat. Let's examine the four most popular ways that Americans consume all those potatoes, going from most to least healthy.
1- Baked or boiled potatoes. Heated potatoes are the healthiest, but they don't have much taste, so people generally add sour cream or butter for flavoring. Those are the items that can get you. Loaded baked potatoes can add bacon bits and cheese and now you've got a fat and calorie bomb. The healthiest part of the potato is the skin, which is still intact when you eat baked potatoes. A medium baked potato has only 190 calories and comes with potassium, fiber, and plenty of nutrients that fueled entire civilizations. Just go easy on the toppings. Instead of butter, try olive oil or something else low-calorie.
2- Mashed potatoes. By mashing potatoes you make them easier to eat, but you remove two of the healthiest items the fiber that kept it together, and the skin that contained most of the nutrients. Mashed potatoes can provide some good, filling nutrient value but again the toppings are what get you. Popular toppings include gravy, sour cream, and butter, and these will load up the calorie and fat load if not watched.
3- French fries. These are one of the most popular items on any restaurant or fast-food menu, and it's assumed that they come with most lunches. Fries are McDonald's number one menu item, and they sell 9 million pounds of them every day. (The secret ingredient in their fries is beef flavoring, which somehow they make without any actual beef products.)
French fries are much less healthy than the baked or mashed versions because of all the fats and oils that the potatoes are fried in. It's gotten better since trans fats were eliminated by most companies, but a medium serving of fries has 15 grams of fat and 365 calories, and that's just as a side dish. (You're only supposed to consume about 50 grams of fat all day.) French fries are great for once in a while, but the fat content and loss of nutrients make it empty calories. Plus most fries are loaded with salt to make them taste better, and salt is an entirely different problem, especially if you have high blood pressure.
4- Potato Chips. These chips are made by slicing potatoes thinly and frying them in oil. They are popular not only because of their taste, but also because they have a long shelf life of 2 to 3 months, which makes them an ideal snack food. They are the only potato that lasts, and have become a huge part of the snack food industry, showing up on grocery shelves and in vending machines.
A small bag of potato chips has 160 calories and 10 grams of fat, but few people can stop at that much. Because of their salty nature and addictive taste, it's not uncommon to eat much more than a single portion with larger and larger bags now being sold. Potato chips can also contain a substance called acrylomide that is suspected as being a carcinogen.
There are multiple flavors of potato chip like ranch, barbecue, and flaming hot, but the only one that claims to be healthy is the baked version. Baked chips have much lower fat contents and lower calorie contents, but they are still just basically empty calories.
So there you have it- potato chips are the worst possible way to consume potatoes, if only because as a snack food they don't compliment any meals. They can be eaten all day and night, which can sabotage any well-laid dietary plan.
I have to give an honorable mention to sweet potatoes, even though technically they aren't a potato. Sweet potatoes have more fiber, vitamin A, and antioxidants than russet, red, or gold potatoes. The insides of sweet potatoes have a bright orange color that is caused by beta carotene (also found in carrots), an ingredient that helps with eye health, the immune system, healthier skin, and better cognition. Sweet potatoes have about the same level of calories, carbohydrates, and fats as white potatoes, but most nutrition books that I have come across recommends them over any other potato for the healthiest diets.