The humble potato has been an important food staple in the diets of people worldwide. Originating in South America and domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, potatoes have been an essential part of the traditional diets of many native people of the Americas for a very long time.
And since their introduction to Europe, many cultures, notably the Irish, heartily adopted potatoes as their own, immediately recognizing the tremendous importance of the food.
Yet despite the obvious value of potatoes, many have sought to denigrate them in recent years. As a result, it would seem that many people simply assume that white potatoes are nutritionally inferior to other foods. But as we’ll see, that’s simply untrue. In fact, ounce for ounce, potatoes pack in more vital nutrients than almost any other food! (King & Slavin, 2013)
These days it is common for “health-conscious” people to eschew “regular” potatoes in favor of what they imagine to be a healthier alternative: the sweet potato. Interestingly, despite the fact that there is essentially nothing any less “paleo” about potatoes versus sweet potatoes (or cabbage, for that matter), many paleo diet adherents forgo potatoes entirely. But is everyone right to hold potatoes in such poor esteem? Let’s look.
Perhaps the most significant nutritional contribution of a potato is the starch content. A “medium” potato (about 150 grams) contains around 25 grams of starch. Although there is a strong anti-starch/anti-carbohydrate sentiment among many these days, the starch content of potatoes is probably a major reason for their tremendous importance among traditional cultures, because they recognized the importance of food energy. Potatoes provide a lot of energy, which is a very good thing for those who wish to remain alive.
But potatoes provide much more than starch. They also provide protein. That same medium potato packs in just over 4 grams of protein. And what makes potato protein especially important is its quality. Among plants, potato protein may be the very highest quality – so much so that it is conceivable to survive on potatoes alone. The same cannot be said of most any other plant proteins.
In the vitamin department, potatoes aren’t too shabby. A medium potato offers up 50 percent of the U.S. daily recommended amount of vitamin C, and it yields 30 percent for vitamin B-6. Compare that to a sweet potato, and already the standard spud is looking mighty good. But there’s more, because that same potato also yields a substantial serving of other B vitamins.
What about minerals? Again, the potato is nothing to laugh at. That medium potato has nearly 900 mg of potassium – more than any other vegetable on an ounce per ounce basis. That potato also contains a moderate dose of magnesium plus a fair amount of copper and manganese.
When Women Infants and Children (WIC) decided to remove potatoes from the approved foods, Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, decided to eat nothing but potatoes for two months in order to demonstrate the nutritional value of potatoes. He managed to gain a lot of good publicity for potatoes as a result.
In the 60 days, his fasting glucose level dropped 10 points and his cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure all dramatically improved. He demonstrated what people have known for thousands of years: potatoes are nutritious, healthy food.
So next time someone denigrates the potato, you can smile inwardly, knowing that you’re doing your body good by enjoying the nutritious tuber. And when you add some equally nutritious butter and salt to the equation, you’ve got something pretty darn delicious.