Potato

One of the world's best loved vegetables, potatoes are a common ingredient in many modern dishes, and they offer a number of health benefits.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Potato, Irish potato
  • Scientific nameSolanum tuberosum
  • Plant typeVegetable
  • Native regionSouth America
  • Main producer(s)China
  • Main Economic UseFood industry, Culinary
Potato

Potatoes are native to South America, namely Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Before making their way to Europe, potatoes were cultivated and consumed for thousands of years in South America, seen by the Spanish Conquerors for the first time in 1535. However, it wasn't until two centuries later that they were finally embraced by Europeans. For many years after their introduction, European people were convinced that eating potatoes would cause terrible diseases, such as leprosy and syphilis, partly because the crop was not mentioned in the Bible, which meant it was unfit for human consumption. The change in perspective did not occur until the 18th century, when potatoes triggered a tangible population boom wherever adopted thanks to their alimentary value.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAntibacterial, Antifungal, Antioxidant
  • Ways to useFood
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Potatoes

By and large, potatoes are known primarily for their nutritional value, so modern research into medicinal uses is limited. Nonetheless, potatoes have been used topically in Quechua communities for treating headaches, hemorrhoids, ulcers, and burns. The antioxidant and antimicrobial properties of potato have led researchers to investigate the following unconfirmed, potential medicinal uses:

  • Preventing vitamin A deficiency (yellow potatoes)
  • Reducing skin rashes (violet potatoes)
  • Treating Staph infections (violet potatoes)
  • When boiled with sugar and salt, to delay dehydration during a stomach infection

How They Work

Potatoes have many essential nutrients and minerals. They contain vitamins A, B, C, and K. They are also rich in the minerals potassium and calcium. In terms of macronutrients, potatoes are rich in carbohydrates, and also have notable amount of protein and dietary fiber. The precise nutrient content also varies by flesh color. Unlike other colors, purple potatoes contain anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant. They also have significantly more phenolic compounds than white and yellow potatoes. On the other hand, potatoes with yellow flesh contain more carotenoids - which are vitamin A precursors - than other colors.

The anthocyanins in certain varieties of potatoes, such as Vitelotte, show antioxidant activity. These compounds also have antibacterial and antifungal properties, namely against Staph and Rhizoctonia solani. While many of the phytocompounds in potatoes have not yet been identified, their nutritional value is well understood. The vitamins and minerals in potatoes play certain essential roles in overall health; for example, vitamin A is indispensable for retinal and eye health.

In the late 20th century, a decoction made of potatoes, carrots, sugar, and salt was authorized by the World Health Organization as a home alternative to oral rehydration therapy (ORT) for stomach infections, since it yields a potassium- and beta carotene-rich liquid that can help replenish lost nutrients. This recipe proved invaluable in many infectious outbreaks and famines across South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where logistic problems or geopolitical conflicts prevented the proper distribution of ORT bags.

How to Consume Potatoes

Main preparation: Cooked

There are many unhealthy ways to eat a potato (e.g., as fries, chips, or a buttery mash). There is an incredible variety of ways to cook potatoes, but they are healthiest and most beneficial when boiled or baked.

Potatoes can even be made into a life-saving oral rehydration therapy for severe stomach infections.

Culinary Information

The versatility and relative low cost of potatoes is what makes them such a popular ingredient in food, as well as the fact that they are quite filling. They can be baked, fried, mashed, boiled, grilled, and roasted, and they are featured heavily in many modern diets around the world.

Other Uses

Potatoes are fermented and distilled in many parts of the world to make alcoholic beverages, such as vodka or akvavit. As potatoes are considered an easy-to-find and cheap material around the world, they are widely used for industrial purposes. Their starch is commonly used a thickening or stabilizing agent in the food industry and for animal feed, and new research is emerging for their use as the basis for biodegradable plastic products, like wrapping and plates. In addition, byproducts from potato are being developed into fuel-grade ethanol.

The potato also plays a role in many cultural practices of the Quechua ethnic group in the Andes. One particular practice involves a prospective daughter-in-law being presented with a pinecone-shaped tuber, which she has to peel. If too much is peeled off, the marriage cannot go ahead.

The primary use of potatoes nowadays is culinary, but they are also used industrially.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets

Potatoes can be obtained from grocery stores year-round, with some varieties being seasonal and only available at certain points in the year. Raw potatoes are easy to find in most supermarkets and grocery stores around the world. They are generally bought in sacks and with the skin still intact, although it is possible to buy pre-peeled or pre-prepared potatoes in many places. Potatoes are not generally sold as supplements, probably due to their ubiquity.

Plant Biology

Classification

The potato is a perennial plant that grows up to 3 feet (91 cm) tall. It has branching stems with compound leaves and white or purple flowers. The swollen tubers (part of the root) are the most well-known part of the plant, but unbeknownst to most, it also produces green fruits that are very similar to a tomato. Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that the tomato and potato actually come from the same family, Solanaceae. Potatoes are categorized under the Solanum genus, with the most common species known as Solanum tuberosum (or Irish potato).

Varieties and Subspecies of Potatoes

There are innumerable varieties of potato that have been developed over the years, depending on their region. Roughly, they can be classified according to color, as russets, reds, whites, golden, and purple potatoes. However, it is estimated that over 4,000 varieties have been developed in South America by the Quechua and Aymara peoples. Because many of the traditional cultivation areas are remote and have been subjected to repeated warfare, many of these unique varieties are considered endangered, while others have not been properly classified.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates
  • Planting timeSpring
  • Potential insect pestsBeetles
  • Potential diseasesFungi, Phytophthora spp.

Potatoes can be grown from the seeds in their green fruit or from the sprouting tubers themselves, but growing them from seed is rare. The seed potato (which simply means a tuber that is planted for the purpose of producing more potatoes) can grow in most soil types, but for optimum growth, it is best to aim for well-drained, loamy soil. Potatoes are very hardy and frost resistant, but are prone to infestation by weevil beetles and Phytophthora infestans fungi. In order to prepare for planting the potatoes in spring, the deep plot should be dug in late autumn or early winter. This way, the frost can break down the soil structure.

Seed potatoes also need to be prepared beforehand - cut any tubers larger than a chicken egg into pieces, with no more than two eyes (buds from which the new crop will grow) on each piece. These should be kept in a warm place for two to four weeks, or until they start sprouting.

Seed potatoes should not be planted until the soil temperature has reached 40°F (5°C), and the plot requires about six hours of sun every day. It is generally recommended to leave three to four years in between growing potatoes on the same plot in order to avoid disease.

Some may not know: the visible part of the potato is actually poisonous to humans, and the only edible part is located under the ground.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesAlcohol, Animal feed

Economic Data

Having enjoyed a long history in South America, the potato is now one of the world's most popular vegetables. It is now cultivated worldwide, with 20 million hectares in total dedicated to this purpose producing more than 300 million metric tons per year. The potato industry is now worth a massive $116 billion USD per year. China is the leading producer, growing 86 million metric tons annually. On the other hand, the highest potato yield per hectare belong to the Netherlands, who harvest an average of 50 tons per cultivated hectare of potato crops.

Bibliography