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Why Potatoes Are Good for You

The Underrated Benefits of Spuds

-- By Bryn Mooth, SparkPeople Contributor

The poor potato. It really has gotten a bad rap.
 
A plentiful crop that's easy and inexpensive to produce, the potato has been a dietary staple across the globe for centuries. (Ireland, a country whose diet once relied almost entirely on the potato, saw one million people die of starvation when the crop failed in the mid-1800s.)
 
Potatoes are packed with dietary fiber, nutrients, and carbohydrates. Due to their high carb count, potatoes have been labeled as a no-no under low-carb diet trends like Atkins. This has knocked the skin off the potato market in the U.S.: Consumption has dropped from a high of 145 pounds per person per year in 1996 to 118 pounds per person per year in 2011.
 
But there's no need to avoid carbohydrates in moderation—especially complex carbs like the ones found in potatoes. The main problem with the humble potato is that it seems to lend itself to all kinds of adulteration: mashed with butter and cream, deep fried, stuffed with bacon and cheese—all diet-wreckers for sure.
 
But with all the potato varieties in grocery stores and at farmers markets—blue, sweet, fingerling, gold—this tuber really does belong on our plates. Make potatoes a moderate portion of your diet and prepare them healthfully, and you'll enjoy all the tasty benefits the spud has to offer.
 
What Are Potatoes?
The potato is part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family (as are eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, tobacco and the poisonous nightshade for which the family is named). The potato plant produces a flowering plant above ground while the edible tuber (essentially a thickened, starchy root) grows below.
 
Let's clear up the confusion about potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams: They're all members of distinct plant families, unrelated to one another. The only thing these three have in common is their growing habit: All are edible tuberous roots supported by above-ground flowering plants. Below, we'll cover the differences among them and focus on their nutritional profiles. <pagebreak>
 
Varieties
If you've shopped for potatoes lately, you may not be surprised to know that there are about 100 edible varieties. Here's a look at some of the more common types:

  • Idaho, russet or baking potatoes are football-shaped and can vary widely in size. These starchy potatoes have a fluffy texture when cooked and are most commonly boiled and mashed, baked, or used for chips and French fries.
     
  • Red, redskin or new potatoes are less starchy, with a smooth, creamy texture when cooked and a slightly sweet taste. They're commonly boiled or roasted. 
     
  • Yukon gold or yellow potatoes have a waxier texture and retain their shape well when cooked, making them an excellent choice for potato salad.
     
  • Blue or purple potatoes are both attractive and delicious; their texture is similar to a red potato, with a sweet taste. Their color signals that they're high in antioxidant flavonoids. Blue potatoes cook quickly and are ideal for roasting. 
     
  • Fingerling potatoes are small, thumb-shaped varieties in a range of colors. You may find heirloom types at farmers markets. Like yellow potatoes, these have a waxy texture and firmness that makes them excellent for potato salad or for roasting. 
     
  • Sweet potatoes are botanically different from the above potato varieties. Their color ranges from pale to deep orange to purple. Sweet potatoes have become popular in recent years not just for their terrific taste, but because they're packed with beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, and vitamins A and C. Sweet potatoes are also lower on the glycemic index than regular potatoes, which means they don't spike blood sugar levels as much as regular potatoes. 
     
  • Yams and sweet potatoes are often confused, but they're botanically different. The sweet potato originated in Central America, while the yam is a longtime staple in Africa. Bright-orange yams are higher in calories, higher in vitamin C and lower in vitamin A than sweet potatoes. Most "yams" sold in the U.S. are actually sweet potatoes.

Buying and Storing
Look for potatoes that are firm, smooth and unblemished. Avoid any that show rot, sprouts (or "eyes") or green tint beneath the skin. This greening comes from exposure to light and indicates the presence of toxic compounds called glycoalkaloids. Eating green potatoes likely won't kill you (cooking at high temperatures can neutralize the glycoalkaloids), but the toxin can affect the potato's taste and cause stomach upset and diarrhea, so it's better to be safe than sorry.
 
Potatoes are perishable and should be stored, unwashed, in a cool, dark, well-ventilated space for up to two months. Place potatoes in a paper or cloth bag, and keep them separate from onions, as the two veggies give off a gas that can hasten decay of both. <pagebreak>
 
Cooking
As with any food, the nutritional value of potatoes depends on how you prepare them. Here's the deal: Fried, mashed with butter and cream, processed into tots or browns or whatever—not so good for you. Here's a chart that shows just how much preparation makes a difference: 

Type Calories per serving Fat grams per serving
Plain baked potato 128 0
Mashed potatoes with butter 300 17
French fries (medium order) 380 19
Hash browns 400 19
Loaded baked potato (with bacon, cheese, and sour cream) 400 23
Loaded potato skins (1/2 a restaurant order) 1,270 83

 
Instead of frying your potatoes or smothering them in cheese, opt for cooking methods that take full advantage of the potato's awesomeness in ways that are healthful and family-friendly. Baking enhances a russet potato's fluffiness. Roasting or grilling helps caramelize the natural sugars in blue or sweet potatoes.
 
Keep these preparation tips in mind when cooking potatoes:                

  • Be aware of portion sizes. Baking potatoes you find at the grocery can be huge—some weigh in at a pound or more! Look for smaller baking potatoes, about 2.5 inches in diameter or about the size of your clenched fist. A small russet potato (about 1/4 pound) has 128 calories.
     
  • Swap the add-ons. Skip high-calorie baked-potato toppers like butter and sour cream. Instead, use nonfat plain Greek yogurt, fresh salsa or tomato sauce, and lower-fat shredded cheese. Use equal parts of nonfat plain Greek yogurt and low-fat mayonnaise in place of full-fat mayo in potato salads.
     
  • Watch the salt. The potato's mild flavor prompts many people to add too much salt. Use minimal salt to get the full sweet, creamy flavor of all potato varieties.
     
  • Don't skip the skin. Potato skins are loaded with dietary fiber. Crispy baked potato skins are delicious (just don't order them from a restaurant—make them yourself to control the calories and fat!). Roasted, grilled or steamed potatoes should be left unpeeled. (The exceptions here are sweet potatoes or yams, whose skins are tough and fibrous.)

Must-Try Spud Recipes
These recipes make excellent use of all kinds of potatoes:
 
Chef Meg's BLT Potato Nachos—Can stuffed potato skins be healthy? You bet! This low-fat version features turkey bacon, part-skim cheese and salsa.
 
Baked Sweet Potato Fries—these fries have a hint of spice and heat, and they're healthful to boot.
 
Chef Meg's Baked Potato Soup—this lower-fat version has all the flavor you want, with bacon and cheese on top.
 
Grilled Blue Potatoes—cube naturally sweet blue potatoes, toss with garlic, olive oil and herbs, and grill in a foil packet.
 <pagebreak>
Nutrition Data
Thanks to our tendency to top potatoes with sour cream and ketchup, people tend to overlook their nutritional benefits. We'll look at conventional potatoes (the nutritional profiles of red, baking, blue and gold potatoes are generally similar, with the colored potatoes being slightly higher in antioxidant flavonoids and/or carotenoids) and sweet potatoes.

Are Sweet Potatoes Really Healthier?
Potatoes are beneficial sources of vitamins C and B-6, the minerals copper, potassium and manganese, and dietary fiber. Nearly all the potato's fiber is in its skin. Sweet potatoes have long been touted as the regular potato's healthier cousin. They are extremely high in beta-carotene (vitamin A) and are a good source of vitamins C and B-5, niacin, potassium and dietary fiber. Sweet potatoes also contain beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and have a lower glycemic index rating than regular potatoes, meaning that they won't cause blood sugar levels to spike as much after eating them. However, both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes deliver an abundance of good nutrients and complex carbs, so incorporate them both into your diet in moderation!

Type Regular Potato (5 oz) Sweet Potato (5 oz)
Calories 134 100
Dietary Fiber 3g 4g
Carbohydrates 29g 24g
Vitamin A 0% 438%
Vitamin C 22% 37%
Calcium 2% 4%
Iron 8% 4%


Sources:
 
The Salt. ''Hot or Not? Potato Board Tries to Un-Dud the Spud,'' accessed August 2012. www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt.
 
The World's Healthiest Foods. ''Are Colored Potatoes Healthier than White Potatoes?," accessed August 2012. http://whfoods.org.
 
 

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