I say potato, you say starch. Potatoes have been garnering a bad reputation in this carb-conscious age, and a recent controversy over potatoes in school lunches is doing nothing to temper folks’ concerns. New guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture suggest eliminating or at least seriously reducing their presence in public school cafeterias. The issue centers on something that may matter to you even if it’s been a long time since you stood in a lunch line: How good-for-you are potatoes? Do they ‘count’ as a serving of vegetables? Do they belong in a healthy diet?
In Harvard nutritionists’ recently released Healthy Eating Plate, an attempt at correcting flaws they say exist in the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, the vegetable recommendations specifically note that “potatoes don’t count.”
U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who hails from Maine’s potato country (Maine has a potato country?) is on a crusade to stop all this rampant potato disparagement. French fries certainly aren’t the healthiest choice, she says, but “a baked potato can be a good source of potassium.”
That’s true—potatoes are high in potassium, fiber, copper, and vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese. They also contain phytonutrients such as carotenoids, flavonoids and “unique tuber storage proteins such as patatin, which exhibits activity against free radicals.” A 2007 study found 60 different kinds of phytochemicals and vitamins in the skins and flesh of 100 wild and commercially grown potatoes. And UK scientists found blood pressure-lowering compounds called kukoamines in potatoes, which had previously only been found in Lycium chinense, an exotic plant used in Chinese herbal medicine.
“When people think ‘potato,’ they think of starch and carbohydrates,” said Roy A. Navarre, a plant geneticist with the ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Research Laboratory in Prosser, Washington. “But potatoes can actually be packed with phenolic compounds, which have a wide range of health-promoting properties, including antioxidant activity.”
It seems the problem might not be so much with potatoes themselves as with the way we typically consume them in this country—fried, slathered with butter, sour cream and bacon bits or served up with eggs, cheese, and other fattening accomplices. Maybe instead of panning potatoes per se, folks should focus more on the way potatoes are prepared and consumed. Because potatoes are so ubiquitous, they can be the healthiest option as a restaurant side or when, say, forced to eat at Wendy’s. Besides which: Some people really like potatoes! If you’re one of them, there’s no reason to banish potatoes from your diet (and, as noted above, there are plenty of good reasons to consume them). Instead, focus on eating potatoes in a way that maximizes their nutritious qualities and minimizes their potential downsides. A few tips for getting the most out of your spuds:
• Eat the skin! The potato skin has the most concentrated fiber content.
• Find ways to adorn the potato that don’t involve all the usual high-fat suspects. Try potatoes with roasted garlic, olive oil, tuna fish, fresh herbs, etc.
• Buy organic. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 report “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” potoates are among the 12 foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found.