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They’re an ingredient that doesn’t rate in the title of one of the most popular dishes served this month. That is, Corned Beef and Cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day. Potatoes haven’t made it on the superfoods list either. In fact, this tasty tuber has received a bad reputation as fattening, finding itself banned on popular low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach.
However, the lowly spud indeed is a nutrient-filled powerhouse that rates a place at the table. What’s more, there are an increasing variety of shapes, sizes and colors of potatoes that are delicious and nutritious too. The difference between the Jekyll and Hyde of the potato is how it’s prepared. The good news is that there are many recipes that feature this versatile vegetable and they all don’t require that it be fried.
Potatoes on the plate date back more than 5,000 years ago when they were first cultivated by the Incas in Peru. Our modern day diet-crazed society wasn’t the first to give spuds a bad rap. Europeans did this during the 18th century when they claimed the vegetable, brought to the Old World by Spanish conquistadores, was poisonous and the cause of serious ills such as leprosy and syphilis.
Potatoes were cultivated as a subsistence and cash crop in the U..S. since the 1600s on the East Coast and 1800s on the West Coast. Today, meat and potatoes is a synonym for the typical U.S. and Western diet.
The russet is most familiar as the chief ingredient in baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and the ubiquitous French fry. However, there are more than 100 varieties grown and sold in the U.S. These include brown skin, red skin, yellow skin and purple skin types with various combinations of white, yellow, red and purple flesh. Sizes range from baseball to marble size and shapes from ovals to long skinny fingers. One of the newest varieties on the market is the Masquerade. It’s the size of a medium-sized russet, with yellow-flesh and swirled purple and gold skin. Even without butter, it’s flesh is creamy with a rich buttery flavor. All this variety might sound dizzying, but it’s really small potatoes. More than 4,000 varieties are grown in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
One medium-sized russet potato supplies 160 calories, with no fat, salt or cholesterol in its unprocessed state. The carbohydrate content is equivalent to two slices of bread. Spuds contain a wealth of nutrients. This same serving size supplies 51 percent of an adult’s daily vitamin C needs, 30 percent of vitamin B6, 25 percent potassium, 12 percent magnesium, 9 percent iron and 2 percent calcium. Potatoes also contain niacin, folate, phosphorus, choline and zinc. This definitely isn’t a food you should drop from your diet like a hot potato.
However, some research suggests that because the carbohydrates in potatoes digest rapidly, they cause a surge in blood sugar and the hormone insulin. It’s this action that places potatoes on the high-glycemic index list. Some nutrition professionals believe that potato’s potential roller coaster effect on blood sugar can lead to an increased risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
On the other hand, studies have also shown that eating more plant foods like potatoes, especially in place of high-fat meats, can help to lower the risk for these same chronic diseases. In addition, potatoes can aid in bone health thanks to its calcium, blood pressure control due to its high potassium content, and cancer prevention from its folate. Potatoes can also help to prevent a suntan turning into wrinkles since its vitamin C supports collagen in the skin.
The best way to reap goodness from potatoes without heaping on the negatives, is to cook this veggie healthfully. Suggestions include topping a baked potato with salsa or bean-based chili and nonfat sour cream, roasting small red potatoes or fingerlings with fresh herbs and spices, or boiling yellow-fleshed potatoes and mashing with pureed cauliflower. These suggestions let you enjoy potatoes and good health too.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Contact her through www.the-triton.com/author/carol-bareuther.