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Potatoes: Health Benefits, Risks & Nutrition Facts

potatoes, nutrition
Among the thousands of varieties of potatoes, red, blue and yellow potatoes are the most popular.
Credit: AlenaNex | Shutterstock

Potatoes are often thought of as a comfort food — richly mashed or crisply fried — but when prepared the right ways, these vegetables are actually quite nutritious. They are a good source of vitamins C and B6, potassium, manganese, fiber, phosphorus, niacin and pantothenic acid. Furthermore, potatoes are stuffed with phytonutrients, including carotenoids, flavonoids and caffeic acid. Add in their relative ease in growing and it’s no wonder that potatoes are the number-one vegetable crop in the world.

Like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, potatoes are members of the nightshade family. They are not root vegetables — they’re actually part of the stem. Potatoes are the swollen part of the plant's underground stem, which grows large and functions to provide food to the leafy part of the plant. This swollen part of the stem is called a tuber. The “eyes” of potatoes are buds, which will sprout into branches if left alone.

Potatoes have antioxidant properties and may help with digestion, heart health, blood pressure and even cancer prevention. They’re also surprisingly low-calorie, with a medium-sized baked potato containing only about 110 calories. Potatoes are starchy carbohydrates with little protein, but they also are fat-free … before the butter or cheese goes on them, of course. [Related: 3 Organic Super-Vegetables That Cost Less Than $2]

Here are the nutrition facts for a potato, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling through the National Labeling and Education Act:

 

Nutrition Facts

Serving size:
1 medium
(5.3 oz / 148 g)

Calories 110
  Calories from Fat 0

*Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Amt per Serving %DV*   Amt per Serving %DV*  
Total Fat 0g 0%   Total Carbohydrate 26g 9%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%     Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Sodium 0mg 0%      Sugars 1g  
Potassium 620mg 18%   Protein 3g  
Vitamin A 0%   Calcium 2%
Vitamin C 45%   Iron 6%

 

Health benefits

Blood pressure

There are several ways that potatoes may help lower your blood pressure. Fiber can help improve insulin functioning, which regulates glucose levels and helps lower blood pressure. Potassium, too, can help lower blood pressure through its actions as a vasodilator (blood vessel widener). Scientists at the Institute for Food Research have discovered that potatoes contain chemicals called kukoamines, which are associated with lowering blood pressure.

Brain functioning and nervous system health

The B6 vitamins in potatoes are critical to maintaining neurological health. Vitamin B6 helps create amines, a type of neurotransmitter that includes serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine — which means that eating potatoes can help with depression, stress, and getting a good night’s sleep.

Furthermore, potatoes’ high level of carbohydrates helps maintain good levels of glucose in the blood, which is necessary to proper brain functioning. Potassium, which encourages the widening of blood vessels, also helps ensure your brain gets enough blood.

Immunity

Vitamin C can help prevent everything from scurvy to the common cold, and potatoes are full of it, with about 45 percent percent of the daily recommended intake per medium baked potato.

Inflammation

Those suffering from arthritis may find some benefits from eating potatoes or drinking potato-boiled water. Potatoes’ vitamin C content acts as an inflammation-reducing antioxidant. The vegetable’s potassium and B6 vitamins can help with inflammation in the digestive system and mouth ulcers. Calcium and magnesium are also helpful in providing relief from rheumatism.

Digestion

Potatoes’ high level of carbohydrates makes them easy to digest and their fiber-filled skin can help keep you regular.

Heart health

Potatoes give your heart plenty of reasons to swoon. Fiber is associated with clearing cholesterol from blood vessels; vitamins C and B6 help reduce free radicals; and carotenoids help maintain proper heart functioning. Additionally, B6 plays a crucial role in the methylation process, which, among other things, changes the potentially dangerous molecule homocysteine into benign molecules. Too much homocysteine can damage blood vessel walls, and high levels of it are associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Cancer prevention

Some types of potatoes contain flavonoid antioxidants zeaxanthin and carotenes, vitamin A and the chemical compound quercetin, all of which may help prevent cancer cells from growing. Red and russet potatoes are the best in this regard, with the highest levels of flavonoid antioxidants.

Skin care

Vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous can all help keep your skin as smooth and creamy as, well, mashed potatoes.

Health risks

Even when prepared in a healthy way, potatoes can present health problems to individuals with obesity or diabetes. They are high in carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. While this makes them a great choice for some athletes, it can be detrimental to those watching their weight. Furthermore, potatoes have a high glycemic index (sugar level), which can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and, in turn, increased insulin production, so people with diabetes may want to avoid too many potatoes.

Healthiest ways to cook potatoes

You can probably guess that smothering your potato in sour cream and bacon isn’t the healthiest way to enjoy it, but what is? Which is more nutritious — baked, boiled or steamed potatoes?

Baking a potato is probably the healthiest way to consume the vegetable. Baking, or microwaving, a potato causes the lowest amount of nutrients to be lost. The next-healthiest way to cook a potato is through steaming, which causes less nutrient loss than boiling. Boiling a peeled potato results in significant nutrient loss, as the water-soluble nutrients leach out into the water.

Water-soluble nutrients include potatoes’ B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, potassium and calcium. As much as 80 percent of a potato’s vitamin C may go down the drain if you boil it. The same thing can happen with peeled potatoes that are left to soak to stop darkening. If you are using the water from the potato boil as stock, however, you’ll still get some of the nutrients.

However you cook a potato, try to eat the skin. Ounce for ounce, the skin contains more nutrients —including the majority of the vegetable’s fiber — than the rest of the potato.

Are potato eyes poisonous?

If the eyes of your potato are not sprouting, you can eat them. If they are sprouting, cut off the eyes and their sprouts before eating the potato. Potato stems, branches, leaves and fruits are toxic, containing alkaloids such as arsenic, chaconine and solanine.

Green potatoes can also be poisonous, so you should take care when eating them. Potatoes turn green if they have had too much exposure to light. If the potato is firm, however, you can cut off the green area and eat the rest of the vegetable. If it is shrunken or soft, throw the potato out.

Potato facts

The potato, from the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat and maize.

The word "potato" comes from the Spanish "patata."

The nickname "spud" comes from the digging tool used in planting potatoes — "espada" in Spanish, "spyd" in Dutch and "spade" in English. The word eventually became associated with the potato itself. It is a myth that the word is an acronym for the Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet, a supposed activist group that wanted to keep the potato out of Britain in the 19th century.

There are thousands of potato varieties, but not all are commercially available. Popular varieties include Russet, Red, White, Yellow, Purple/Blue, Fingerling and Petite.

Potatoes are grown in all 50 states. The top producing states in 2012 were Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and California.

In 2013, there were more than 1 million acres of potatoes planted and harvested, which produced 43.7 billion pounds.

The average American eats about 124 pounds of potatoes per year; Germans eat about twice as much.

Potatoes were traditionally used to make vodka, although today most vodka is produced using fermented grains such as corn, wheat or rye.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest potato grown was 7 pounds 1 ounce.

The Inca in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes around 8,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C.

In 1536, Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, and carried potatoes back to Europe.

Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589. It took nearly four decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe. Because potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible, many people looked at them with suspicion. For many years, people thought that eating potatoes would cause leprosy.

Potatoes arrived in the British colonies in 1621 when the governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Gov. Francis Wyatt at Jamestown.

The first permanent potato patches in North America were established in 1719, most likely near Londonderry, New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants. 

A royal chef named A. Parmentier helped King Louis XIV popularize the potato in France in the 18th century. He created a feast with only potato dishes, which he realized was possible when he was fed only potatoes while imprisoned in Germany. Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France, was in attendance at Parmentier’s feast in 1767.

Marie Antoinette turned potatoes into a fashion statement when she paraded through the French countryside wearing potato blossoms in her hair.

French fries were introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson, who served them in the White House during his presidency (1801-1809).

Another royal chef, Collinet, chef for French King Louis Phillippe, unintentionally created soufflés, or puffed potatoes one night in the mid-1800s. When the king arrived late for dinner, Collinet plunged already-fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them. To the chef’s surprise and the king’s delight, the potatoes puffed up like little balloons.

The Irish Potato Famine: In the 1840s, an outbreak of potato blight swept through Europe and wiped out the potato crop in many countries. The Irish working class lived largely on potatoes and when the blight reached Ireland, their main staple food disappeared. Many poverty-stricken families struggled to survive. Over the course of the famine, almost 1 million people died from starvation or disease. Another million left Ireland, mostly for Canada and the United States.

In 1853, railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were cut too thick and sent them back to the kitchen at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. To spite him, the chef, George Crum, sliced some potatoes paper-thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them. To everyone’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved his “Saratoga Crunch Chips,” and potato chips were born.

The potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space. In October 1995, NASA and the University of Wisconsin created the technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages.

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