They are native to the Americas, most likely in the Andes, Peru, and Bolivia. They were first cultivated somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in that Central American and South American region. The term potato can refer to either the plant or the entire tuber, which is rather shapeless and ugly, in most varieties. It’s scientific name is Solanum Tuberosum, and it is actually a member of the Nightshade family. Potatoes are one of the most common and important food sources on the planet, and they contain a wealth of health benefits that make them all the more essential as a staple dietary item for much of the world’s population.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine and diet vegetables without potatoes. They has somehow became one of the most popular and recognized foods on the planet. Potato lovers (including me), and even those who don’t like them (yet!), will be equally delighted to know that potatoes have nutritional components that go far beyond carbohydrates and calories, and they can be an extrememly beneficial addition to any dietary plan.
In the garden
Potatoes are generally grown from seed potatoes – these are tubers specifically grown to be disease free and provide consistent and healthy plants. To be disease free, the areas where seed potatoes are grown are selected with care. New tubers may arise at the soil surface. Since exposure to light leads to greening of the skins and the development of solanine, growers are interested in covering such tubers. Commercial growers usually address this problem by piling additional soil around the base of the plant as it grows (“hilling”, or in British English “earthing up”). An alternative method used by home gardeners and smaller-scale growers involves covering the growing area with organic mulches such as straw or with plastic sheets. Correct potato husbandry can be an arduous task in some circumstances. Good ground preparation, harrowing, plowing, and rolling are always needed, along with a little grace from the weather and a good source of water. Three successive plowings, with associated harrowing and rolling, are desirable before planting. Eliminating all root-weeds is desirable in potato cultivation. In general, the potatoes themselves are grown from the eyes of another potato and not from seed. Home gardeners often plant a piece of potato with two or three eyes in a hill of mounded soil. Commercial growers plant potatoes as a row crop using seed tubers, young plants or microtubers and may mound the entire row.
Health Benefits of Potatoes
Weight Gain: Potatoes are primarily made of carbohydrates and contain very little protein. This makes it an ideal diet for those excessively lean or thin people who desperately want to put on weight. The vitamin content includes vitamin-C and B-complex, which also help in proper absorption of carbohydrates. That is one of the reasons that potatoes make up a large part of the diet of sumo wrestlers, as well as many other athletes who need large energy reserves to burn off in order to compete!
Digestion: Since potatoes predominantly contain carbohydrates, they are easy to digest and facilitate digestion. This property makes them a good diet for babies or for those who cannot digest hard food, but need energy. However, remember that eating too many potatoes on a regular basis may cause acidity over time. Potatoes also contain a considerable amount of fiber or roughage, more in raw potatoes and cold ones than boiled or hot ones. This stimulates peristaltic motion and increased secretion of gastric juices, which eases digestion and prevents conditions like constipation and protects the body from more serious conditions like colorectal cancer. Fiber is also connected with scraping cholesterol out of the arteries and blood vessels, thereby increasing heart health.
Skin Care: Vitamin-C and B-complex as well as minerals like potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc are good for the skin. Apart from that, pulp obtained from crushed raw potatoes, mixed with honey, can work well in skin and face packs. This even helps to cure pimples and spots on the skin. Again, this pulp, if applied externally on burns, provides quick relief and faster healing. Smashed potatoes, and even water in which potatoes have been washed, are very good for softening and cleaning skin, especially around the elbows, and the back of the hands.
Scurvy: The vitamin-C present in potatoes can help prevent this disease, caused by a deficiency of vitamin-C. It is characterized by cracked lip corners, spongy and bleeding gums, and frequent viral infections. Although it has been eliminated from most first and second world countries with ready access to vitamin C, it still exists in certain nations of the world, so the prolific presence of potatoes in the world helps with this problem.
Inflammation: Potatoes are very effective in reducing inflammation, both internal and external. Since it is soft, easily digested and has a lot of vitamin-C (a very good antioxidant that repairs tissue wear and tear), potassium and vitamin-B6, it can relieve any inflammation of the intestines and the digestive system. It is very good dietary element for those who have mouth ulcers as well. Therefore, people who suffer from arthritis and gout can use potatoes for their anti-inflammatory impact, but again, since it can add to weight gain, which exacerbates these conditions, and is commonly eaten with meat and other rich foods that make gout worse, a fine balance must be struck.
Cancer Prevention: Certain types of potatoes, particularly red and russet potatoes, contain high levels of flavonoid antioxidants and vitamin A like zeaxanthin and carotenes, they can protect you against many types of cancer. Also, research at the Agricultural Research service has shown that potatoes contain a compound called quercetin, which has been proven to have anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties. Finally, the high levels of vitamin A and C both have antioxidant qualities that can protect your body from the devastating effects of cancer.
High Blood Pressure: Since high blood pressure can occur for a number of reasons that include diabetes, tension, indigestion, nutrient balance, food content and many others, different treatments are required. Luckily, potatoes can alleviate multiple possible causes; potatoes can be used to relieve high blood pressure due to tension. They can also treat indigestion due to abundance of vitamin-C and fiber within it, but they should be avoided if the high blood pressure is a result of diabetes. The fiber present in it is helpful in lowering cholesterol and improves functioning of insulin in the body, which aids in the lowering of blood pressure. This is because there is a direct relation between blood pressure and the glucose level in the blood; insulin helps to regulates that glucose level. Furthermore, the potassium found in potatoes (46% of daily requirement per serving) lowers blood pressure, since potassium functions as a vasodilator.
Brain Function: Proper functioning of the brain depends largely on the glucose level, oxygen supply, various components of the vitamin-B complex and certain hormones, amino acids and fatty acids like omega-3. Potatoes cater to almost all the needs mentioned above. They are high in carbohydrates, and thereby maintain good levels of glucose in the blood. This prevents the brain from letting fatigue creep in and it keeps your cognitive activity and performance high. Next, the brain needs oxygen, which is carried to the brain by the hemoglobin in the blood; its main constituent is iron. Potatoes contain iron as well. Therefore, potatoes help deliver oxygen to the brain as well. There are a wide variety of vitamins and minerals in potatoes that positively affect the function of the brain, including phosphorus, zinc, and the B complex vitamins. The vasodilating properties of potassium have also been connected to stimulation of brain function due to increased blood flow to that essential organ.
Heart Diseases: Apart from the vitamins (B-complex, C), minerals and roughage, potatoes also contain certain substances called Carotenoids (lutein, zeaxanthin). Carotenoids are beneficial for heart health and the functioning of other internal organs. Again, since potatoes raises the glucose level in the blood and over-consumption may cause obesity, which puts pressure on your heart, you must be careful about how often you use potatoes for this health benefit. This method of preventing heart disease is not recommended for obese or diabetic people.
Kidney Stones: Kidney Stones, also known as Renal Calculi, are caused mainly due to increased levels of uric acid in the blood. In such cases, foods high in protein should be avoided, particularly animal proteins such as meat, turkey, shrimp, fish, eggs, and milk, as well as spinach, raw plantain, black grams and certain beans, which drastically increase the level of uric acid in the blood. Iron and calcium also contribute to forming the stones. Potatoes are rich in both of these so logically, they wouldn’t fit in as a preventative measure of kidney stones, but they also contain magnesium, which inhibits the accumulation or deposition of calcium (calcification) in the kidney and other tissues, thereby proving beneficial for treatment of renal calculi.
Diarrhea: Potatoes are an excellent component of an energy-rich diet for those suffering from diarrhea, since it is very easy to digest and contains mild roughage. However, eating too many potatoes can cause diarrhea due to the excessive ingestion of starch.
Other Benefits and Cautions: Juice from potatoes is a good treatment for burns, bruises, sprains, skin problems, ulcers, effects of narcotics, prostate cancer, uterine cancer, and the formation of cysts or tumors. On the other hand, some care also needs to be taken while eating potatoes. Green potatoes are often poisonous, and so are potato leaves and fruits, as they contain alkaloids like solanine, chaconine and arsenic. An overdose of those chemicals could easily prove fatal. Moreover, the glycemic index (in simple words, the energy or sugar content) of potatoes is very high (above 80), so people that are obese, trying to lose weight, or diabetic should avoid eating potatoes. If eaten, potatoes are healthier when baked, rather than raw or fried.
In the Kitchen
Potatoes can be boiled, fried, steamed, grilled or baked. All potatoes should be cooked or placed in water immediately after peeling to prevent discoloration. To peel or not to peel is generally a result of the preparation method or personal preference. The exceptions are thin-skinned new potatoes, which should not be peeled. Potato varieties should be selected based on their use in a recipe. New potatoes are moist and waxy and are best for steaming, boiling and in salads. Oblong mature white potatoes are rather dry and starchy. They are the most popular french-fried potato and they are great for baking and mashing. Round red potatoes have a rather waxy texture making them ideal for boiling and mashing. Round white potatoes are thin-skinned and hold their shape in salads as well as boiling and roasting. Yellow-fleshed potatoes are good for steaming, roasting, and mashing. Fresh garden herbs that enhance the flavor of potatoes include basil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, lovage, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme.
Potatoes do not freeze, dry or can with good results. For long term storage of late fall crops, store at temperatures of 45 to 50°F. After harvesting, place in the sun for two to three hours to dry, brush off the soil, do not wash until ready to use. If storage temperatures are too high, potatoes tend to soften and sprout. Store in a dark place to prevent greening and layer between sheets of newspaper so if one spoils it will not spread to the whole lot.
Some of my favourite potatoes recipes:
- Potato Pancakes
- Potato Croquettes
- Duchess Potatoes
- Cheesy Potatoes
- Scalloped Potato
- Stuffed Baked Potatoes