Have you ever wondered about the most versatile, classic, go-to vegetable of all time – the potato? The potato has a renowned reputation – from being a staple in most cuisines around the world, to having its own state in the Western United States (Idaho), to having annual festivals in North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, and Minnesota. Once considered to be poisonous and evil (way long ago in the 1500s), today there are over 300 million metric tons of potatoes consumed annually – over 660 billion pounds!
First planted in southern New Hampshire in the early 1700s, there are an estimated 200 types of potatoes in the United States – with an additional 4000 varieties around the world! Potatoes actually have a lot of nutrients and health benefits. Potatoes contain both beneficial macro- and micronutrients. Here, we are going to take a look at the most common types of potatoes and see how they compare in terms of health benefits.
Nutritional Considerations for Potatoes
The four main types of potatoes are: white potatoes, russet potatoes, red potatoes, and sweet potatoes. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) categorizes potatoes by various grading standards which include shape, size, and firmness. To meet U.S. consumer standards, potatoes must be free of various deficiencies, such as blackheart, dirt, or internal wet breakdown. A medium-sized baked potato contains about 164 calories.
The carbohydrate content of potatoes ranges from 60-80%, about with very little protein and little to no fat. Out of the three types of carbohydrates (sugar, staches, and fibers), potatoes are considered to be mainly starches. Carbohydrates are important for health, because they provide a source of energy to support daily activity. The daily recommendation is 275 grams of carbohydrates, based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. A medium-sized potato averages 37 grams of carbohydrates, about 13% of the recommended daily value.
The type and quality of carbohydrate that one chooses to ingest is important. A focus on complex carbohydrates that have not been processed and stripped of their nutrients in a refining process is recommended. This criteria alone makes potatoes a great candidate as being a whole, unrefined carbohydrate source. The glycemic index (GI) is used to designate carbohydrate content on a scale of 1 to 100, based on blood sugar levels after eating. The three categories are High GI (70-100), Medium GI (55-69), and Low GI (55 and below). Potatoes fall into the High GI category, but their GI level can range, depending on how they are prepared.
The greatest ratio of fiber is found in the potato skin. In the last 7 years, fiber has been considered a “shortfall” nutrient identified in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Adequate fiber can help control blood sugar and cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of heart disease. The fiber in potatoes also promotes satiety and digestive regularity, which makes them good options as part of a diet for weight loss. White potatoes and red potatoes are the highest in fiber, which is important for digestive health and regularity. A white potato (with the skin) in particular yields between 3 and 4 grams of fiber.
Protein & Fat
The USDA recommends a total of 46 grams of protein for women and 56 total grams of protein for men. Potatoes have a very low protein content, estimated at about 2 grams per serving. The protein found in potatoes, called patatin, is considered to be a very high quality protein. Another benefit to this potato protein is that it is allergy free. There has also been an increased demand over the past 10 to 12 years for potato protein isolate, which is essentially the residual amino acids after all of the starch content has been extracted.
With respect to fats, there is little to no fat in potatoes at all. Fat comes into play depending on how potatoes are prepared, such as frying with potato chips and French fries.
Potatoes are high in Vitamin C and Vitamin B-6, which aid in brain development and nervous and immune system functions. A potato has about 45% of the daily Vitamin C content, which is higher than a medium sized tomato. Potatoes are also packed with minerals, such as potassium, selenium, and magnesium. Potatoes also contain essential phytonutrients (a.k.a. phytochemicals, antioxidants, flavonoids, etc.), which are bioactive compounds that aid in long term health and body function on multiple levels. Most of a potato’s phytonutrients/antioxidants are found in the skin. Some notable phytonutrients are lutein, which enhances eyesight, and chlorogenic acid, which clears the body of destructive free radicals. Other antioxidants include polyphenols, ascorbic acid, carotenoids, tocopherols, and α-lipoic acid.
Red and Purple Potatoes
While the potato skin contains the most vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, potatoes with colored flesh boost the nutritional value significantly, in addition to the starch content. Red and purple potatoes are considered some of the healthiest potatoes because they are highest in nutrient density in terms of vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content. Anthocyanins, an antioxidant found in red and purple potatoes, not only fights free radicals and has cancer-fighting properties, but also promotes healthy aging and nervous system function. Red and purple potato tubers (the small sprouts/roots coming out of the skin) contain a great deal of phenolic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Quercetin, another phytochemical that is high in red potatoes also fights allergies, inflammation, hypertension, colds, and high blood pressure. Red potatoes also contain iron, which aid in cellular function, digestion, and boosting energy levels.
Orange sweet potatoes
Orange sweet potatoes are particularly high in the major carotenoid, beta carotene, the predecessor to Vitamin A, which boosts vision, promotes healthy and glowing skin, and contributes to overall cognitive and respiratory function. Carotenoids, a type of phytonutrient, also aid in cardiovascular and nervous system health. Sweet potatoes have an exceptionally high mineral content and sodium to potassium ratio. Other types of sweet potatoes include Japanese white sweet potatoes and purple sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes, just as much as regular potatoes, are considered to be a staple and are cultivated in more than 115 countries. Sweet potatoes are lower on the glycemic index and are recommended for stabilizing blood sugar levels for diabetic patients. Sweet potatoes also contain phenolic acid and are highest in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
White and Russet Potatoes
While flesh colored potatoes contain more nutrients and minerals, white potatoes and russet potatoes are still excellent sources of fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Whether or not you say potato, or I say po-tah-toe, this versatile root vegetable is not only chalked full of complex carbohydrates, nutrients, and minerals, but is a great side dish to almost any meal! Red and purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, and white and russet potatoes are all very nutritious. Consider adding them as a side dish for your next get together!