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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 the No. 1 vegetable crop in the United States and the fourth most consumed crop in the world, behind rice, wheat and corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Historically, Americans ate most of their potatoes fresh. Since the 1950s, however, processed potatoes — French fries and hash browns, for example — have grown more popular as the technology to freeze the vegetables has improved. According to the USDA, processed potatoes composed 64 percent of total U.S. potato use during the 2000s, compared to 35 percent in the 1960s. Americans, on average, eat 55 lbs. (35 kilograms) of frozen potatoes per year, 42 lbs. (19 kg) of fresh potatoes, 17 lbs. (8 kg) of potato chips and 14 lbs. (6 kg) of dehydrated potato products.

Potatoes are often thought of as a comfort food — richly mashed with butter and sour cream or crisply fried in vegetable oil. But when prepared in these ways, they can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health

However, when prepared the right way — without butter, cheese or sour cream, for example — these vegetables are somewhat nutritious. Potatoes are low calorie, with a medium-sized baked potato containing only about 110 calories. They are a good source of vitamins C and B6, manganese, phosphorus, niacin and pantothenic acid.

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

Potatoes are stuffed with phytonutrients, which are organic components of plants that are thought to promote health, according to the USDA. Phytonutrients in potatoes include carotenoids, flavonoids and caffeic acid. 

The vitamin C in potatoes acts as an antioxidant. These substances may prevent or delay some types of cell damage, according to the National Institutes of Health. They may also help with digestion, heart health, blood pressure and even cancer prevention.

Blood pressure

Potatoes may help lower blood pressure for several reasons. Victoria Jarzabkowski, a nutritionist with the Fitness Institute of Texas at The University of Texas at Austin, said that the fiber found in potatoes can help lower cholesterol by binding with cholesterol in the blood. "After it binds, we excrete it," she said. 

Potatoes are also a good source of potassium. "All potatoes are potassium rich," Jarzabkowski said. "They have even more potassium than a banana, and a lot of it is found in the [potato's] skin." She noted that the outer potato peel also contains a good deal of fiber. Potassium is a mineral that helps lower blood pressure, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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 useful brain chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. This means that eating potatoes may help with depression, stress and even perhaps attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Potatoes' high level of carbohydrates may have some advantages, including helping maintain good levels of glucose in the blood, which is necessary to proper brain functioning. A 1995 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that modest increases in glucose could help enhance learning and memory. 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 this nutrient, with about 45 percent of the daily recommended intake per medium baked potato, according to the Washington State Potato Commission

Inflammation

Some people think potatoes and other members of the nightshade family — such as eggplants, tomatoes and peppers — trigger arthritis flares. However, there is limited scientific evidence to support this hypothesis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. The organization suggests that people with arthritis try cutting nightshade vegetables from their diets for two weeks to see if symptoms improve. 

Some studies suggest these vegetables may actually help reduce arthritis symptoms, the foundation said. For example, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that potatoes may reduce inflammation.

Digestion

The largest health benefit offered by potatoes is how they can help with digestion due to their high fiber content, Jarzabkowski said. Potatoes' high level of carbohydrates makes them easy to digest, while their fiber-filled skin can help keep you regular. 

Heart health

Potatoes give your heart plenty of reasons to swoon, due to the fiber content. Jarzabkowski said 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 methionine, a component in new proteins, according to Harvard. Too much homocysteine can damage blood vessel walls, and high levels of it are associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Athletic performance

Jarzabkowski described how potatoes can be a win for athletes. "Potatoes can help restore electrolyte balance," she said. "Sodium and potassium, which are found in potato peels, are two important electrolytes, and athletes lose them in sweat." Electrolytes are necessary for optimum body function, and having too few can cause cramps, as many athletes know. 

Skin care

According to Organic Facts, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous can all help keep skin as smooth and creamy as, well, mashed potatoes. These nutrients are all present in potatoes.

Health risks

Potatoes are fat free, but they are also starchy carbohydrates with little protein. According to Harvard, the carbs in potatoes are the kind that the body digests rapidly and have a high glycemic load. That is, they cause blood sugar and insulin to surge and then dip. This effect can make people feel hungry again soon after eating, which may lead to overeating. The rapid rise in blood sugar can also lead to increased insulin production. Jarzabkowski said, "The last thing I'd recommend to a diabetic is a potato."

On the other hand, potatoes are also a great source of fiber, Jarzabkowski said, and the fiber content helps you feel fuller longer. 

Jarzabkowski recommended that when planning meals, people should remember potatoes' carb content. "Potatoes should take the place of a grain on the plate. Use it as a carb rather than as your only vegetable," she said. 

Even when prepared in a healthy way, potatoes can present health problems to individuals with obesity or diabetes. They are high in simple carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. Jarzabkowski likened the vegetables in this way to white bread. 

The Harvard School of Public Health tracked the diet and lifestyle of 120,000 men and women for about 20 years and found that people who increased their consumption of French fries and baked or mashed potatoes gained more weight over time — as much as 3.4 lbs. every four years. 

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?

Jarzabkowski emphasized the importance of preparation in potato consumption. "The best way to eat a potato is in its whole, unprocessed form," she said. Baking a potato is the best way to prepare it, as baking, or microwaving, a potato causes the lowest amount of nutrients to be lost, she said. 

The next-healthiest way to cook a potato is through steaming, which causes less nutrient loss than boiling. Cooking a peeled potato in this way results in significant nutrient loss, as the water-soluble nutrients leach out into the water.

In a potato, those water-soluble nutrients include 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 the vegetable. The same thing can happen with peeled potatoes that are left to soak, a method used to stop darkening. If you use 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, Jarzabkowski said.

Are potato eyes poisonous?

If the eyes of a potato are not sprouting, they can be eaten. If they are sprouting, the National Institutes of Health recommends cutting 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. Solanine is "very toxic even in small amounts," according to the NIH.

Poison is also found in green potatoes. The vegetables turn green if they have had too much exposure to light. According to the NIH, you should "never eat potatoes that are spoiled or green below the skin."

Potato facts

Here are some potato facts, from the U.S. Potato Board and the Idaho Potato Museum:

Like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, potatoes are members of the nightshade family. They are not root vegetables; potatoes are actually the swollen part of the stem of the perennial Solanum tuberosum. This part of the plant is called a tuber, which functions to provide food to the leafy part of the plant. The "eyes" of potatoes are buds, which will sprout into branches if left alone.

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 U.S. 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 lbs. (20 billion kg) of the vegetable.

The average American eats about 124 lbs. (56 kg) 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 Guinness World Records, the largest potato grown was 7 lbs., 1 ounce (3.2 kg).

The Inca in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes, growing the vegetables around 8000 B.C. to 5000 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, the residents' 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 the potato chip was born.

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

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