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Potatoes key source of important nutrients

The potato has been a staple in the Canadian diet for a hundred years because of its versatility, ease of growth (resulting in an abundant supply and low cost) and nutrient content. Indeed, for may people, potatoes—whether mashed, baked or scalloped—are the ultimate comfort food.

However, in recent years, this root vegetable has received a bad rap—being touted as a high-carb, starchy food to be avoided by weight-conscious eaters, and in fact by anyone who is serious about a healthy diet. It’s high time to set the record straight. Potatoes are not only delicious, filling and reasonably priced, they contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and are low in calories and high in fibre.

It is no secret that potatoes are “starchy” or rich in carbohydrates which is part of the reason for their negative reputation; however, this is not necessarily a liability. Contrary to popular opinion, potatoes are composed of complex carbohydrates which means they are absorbed slowly and do not cause blood glucose to spike as do simple carbs in white bread and sugar, for example.  In fact, the type of carbs found in potatoes are an exceptionally good energy source.

When one assesses calories in a vat of greasy French fries or potato chips, or in a baked potato loaded with sour cream, butter, cheese and bacon bits, yes, one could say it is “fattening.” However, cutting out the extras, one medium potato has only 100 calories.

Good source of vitamin C

It should be noted that the food ranking system points to potatoes as being a good source of vitamins C and B6 and the minerals potassium, copper and manganese which means one serving of potatoes will supply a significant amount of these nutrients, all important for metabolism and supporting the immune system. While the root vegetable has also been lauded for dietary fibre, this is only true if the skin is consumed along with the flesh.

More recently, it has come forward that potatoes contain a variety of phytonutrients such as carotenoids and flavonoids which exhibit antioxidant activity—that is, they help to fight cancer and inflammation. In addition, scientists have identified blood pressure-lowering compounds in potatoes called kukoamines, thus far found in very few other plants, one being the much-acclaimed goji berry.

Potatoes are known for being high in vitamin C—in fact, history tells us in the 16th and 17th centuries, the vegetable was used on long sea voyages to prevent scurvy. While it is imperative we ingest sufficient vitamin C which helps prevent colds and influenza by bolstering the immune system and assists with healing wounds along with many other benefits, vitamin C is easy to come by. Some nutritionists say if for no other reason, consumers should eat the potato for its vitamin B6 content.

Active everywhere

Vitamin B6 is involved in a myriad of enzymatic actions which means the vitamin is active virtually everywhere in the body, creating new cells and repairing old ones. It also plays numerous roles in the nervous system, such as enabling messaging to go on between cells. Some of the transmitters that require vitamin B6 for production are serotonin (a lack of which is linked to depression), melatonin (an hormone needed for restful sleep), and epinephrine and norepinephrine (hormones that help us respond to stress). Finally, vitamin B6 has been shown to protect against heart disease by helping to keep homocysteine levels low.

The conclusion is that consumers benefit from including potatoes frequently in their meal plans, definitely no hardship since there are dozens of ways to prepare them. It should be noted there are four common types—so-called red, yellow, Russet and white—which are interchangeable to a point. Yellow potatoes (which include Yukon Gold) have a slightly mealy texture and are a good “all-purpose” potato. Russets are high in starch and great for baking whole, while red and white potatoes are low in starch and perfect for serving boiled or making potato salad.

Learn to enjoy potatoes plain with a dollop of salsa and chives rather than high-fat toppings. Keep the skin on whenever feasible.