Wednesday 6 March 2024

Which Potatoes Are the Healthiest?

 Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are starchy root vegetables that are a staple food source in many areas of the world. Though potatoes are the most-consumed vegetable in the United States, they're often considered unhealthy due to their high carbohydrate content and use in the fast food industry.

However, potatoes have many nutritional benefits. They provide an array of essential vitamins and minerals such as potassium and fiber. They also contain antioxidants and other protective plant compounds.

All potatoes can be a healthy choice when cooked using methods that preserve their nutritional value. Varieties like purple, red, and sweet potatoes stand out due to their high nutrient content, but preparation is an important factor in how healthy potatoes are in general.

1. Purple Potatoes 

Purple potatoes are packed with beneficial plant compounds, including anthocyanins (a type of antioxidant). Anthocyanins are polyphenol plant pigments that give foods like fruits and vegetables their purple, blue, or red colors. In addition to giving purple potatoes their saturated color, anthocyanins benefit health by protecting cells from damage and reducing inflammation, both of which can help lower chronic disease risk.

Research shows that people who consume diets high in anthocyanin-rich foods, such as purple potatoes, have a lower risk of certain health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Purple potatoes may be a better choice for blood sugar control than other potato varieties because of their high polyphenol content. This is because pigmented potatoes have been shown to have a lower effect on blood sugar levels after meals than yellow and white potatoes. Purple potatoes are also packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. 

Here is the nutrition breakdown for a 3.5-ounce (about 100 grams, or 2/3 cup) uncooked serving of purple potatoes:

  • Calories: 85
  • Protein: 1.54 grams (g)
  • Carbohydrates: 20 g
  • Fiber: 3.1 g
  • Potassium: 337 milligrams (mg) or 14% of the Daily Value (DV)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture website (USDA) does not include specific information about vitamin B6 and vitamin C content, but purple potatoes are a rich source of both.

Prep tip: Try baking purple potatoes with olive oil and sprinkling them with salt and pepper for a simple and delicious side dish. 

2. Red Potatoes 

Red potatoes are an excellent source of flavonoid antioxidants like quercetin, kaempferol-rutinose, catechin, and rutin. Red potatoes contain twice the amount of flavonoids as compared to white potatoes.They're also a rich source of several nutrients, including vitamin C and potassium.

Here is the nutrition breakdown for a 3.5-ounce serving of cooked red potatoes:

  • Calories: 87
  • Protein: 2.3 g
  • Carbohydrates: 19.6 g
  • Fiber: 1.8 g
  • Potassium: 545 mg or 12% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 0.212 mg or 12% of the DV
  • Vitamin C: 12.6 mg or 14% of the DV

Like purple potatoes, red potatoes are rich in vitamin C. One 3.5-ounce serving provides 14% of your daily needs for this critical nutrient. Red potatoes are also a good source of potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure and support heart health. Consuming adequate potassium is essential for blood pressure control because potassium helps the body excrete sodium through the urine. It also relaxes blood vessels.

Prep tip: Try pairing red potatoes with other high-potassium foods like beans and lentils in soups and grain dishes for an extra nutritional boost. Leave the skin on, as red potato peels are high in anthocyanin antioxidants.

3. Sweet Potatoes 

Sweet potatoes are edible roots that belong to the Convolvulaceae, or morning glory, family. Though they belong to different plant families, sweet potatoes are often grouped with tubers like white, red, and purple potatoes. However, sweet potatoes are rich in nutrients lacking in red, purple, and white potatoes, such as vitamin A.

Sweet potatoes are packed with provitamin A carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. The body converts beta-carotene into retinal and retinoic acid, the active forms of vitamin A.  Vitamin A is needed for several critical processes in the body, such as immune function, cellular growth, and vision.

Carotenoids also act as powerful antioxidants in the body, protecting cells from damage that may lead to disease. Diets high in carotenoids have been associated with reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease and certain cancers.

Sweet potatoes are rich in fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C, and potassium. Here is the nutrition breakdown for a 3.5-ounce serving of baked sweet potato with skin:

  • Calories: 90
  • Protein: 2 g
  • Carbohydrates: 20.7 g
  • Fiber: 3.3 g
  • Magnesium: 27 mg or 6% of the DV
  • Potassium: 473 mg or 10% of the DV
  • Vitamin A: 957 micrograms (mcg) or 107% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 0.285 mg or 17% of the DV
  • Vitamin C: 19.5 mg or 22% of the DV

Sweet potatoes are higher in fiber than red, white, and purple potatoes. They provide about 75% more fiber than the same serving of red potatoes. Fiber is essential for gut health and helps keep bowel movements regular and comfortable. Fiber also helps keep you satiated (feeling full after meals), which reduces the likelihood of overeating.

Prep tip: Sweet potatoes are delicious baked, roasted, or steamed and mashed and can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. You can make sweet potato fries by slicing, them, drizzling them with olive oil and spices, and baking them.

Yam vs. Sweet Potato

Yams and sweet potatoes are often lumped together, but they're completely different vegetables. Sweet potatoes are much richer in vitamin A. They're sweeter than yams and are often used in dishes like soups or pies.

Which Potatoes to Limit

All potatoes, including white potatoes, can be included in healthy diets. Studies show that eating potatoes can improve nutrient intake and feelings of fullness. However, certain preparation methods can reduce beneficial compounds in potatoes and contribute to the formation of harmful chemicals.

Fried Potatoes

About one-third of potatoes in the United States are used in frozen products like french fries and hash browns. Fried potatoes are staples in many dishes, including latkes, samosas, and Spanish omelets.

Frying potatoes can destroy anthocyanins, which reduces the nutritional value of the potatoes. Research shows that frying can reduce the anthocyanin content of potatoes by as much as 83%. Frying can also reduce the level of vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant found in potatoes.

Frying leads to the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are molecules created when sugars react with proteins or fats. Fried foods—like french fries and potato chips—are very high in AGEs, which can damage cells when levels get too high in the body. This is one of the reasons why diets high in fried foods have been shown to increase the risk of health conditions like breast cancer and heart disease.

Fried potato products are often higher in calories compared to potatoes cooked using methods like baking and steaming because they contain large amounts of oil. This is why eating fried foods too often can contribute to weight gain. 

Mashed or Baked Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are healthy on their own, but they generally involve adding rich ingredients like butter and heavy cream. Baked potatoes might be topped with sour cream, cheese, or high-fat ingredients like bacon.

Enjoy potatoes using multiple preparation methods, but be mindful of added ingredients that might reduce the overall health benefits of the dish.

Healthiest Ways to Cook Potatoes

There are a variety of ways to incorporate potatoes into your diet. Research shows that boiling, microwaving, and steaming are the best methods for preserving anthocyanins in different potato varieties. Frying leads to the greatest loss of these protective compounds. 

Keeping the peels on your potatoes can increase your consumption of antioxidants like anthocyanins and can prevent the loss of nutrients like vitamin C and potassium during cooking.

Here are a few healthy ways to incorporate potatoes into your diet:

  • Steam potatoes and combine them with fresh herbs, spices, olive oil, and mustard to create a colorful and flavorful potato salad.
  • Add potatoes to soups and stews to increase the fiber, vitamin, and mineral content of recipes.
  • Bake or microwave a sweet potato or regular potato in its skin for a nutritious and simple side dish. 
  • For a lighter, higher-protein take on traditional mashed potatoes, use Greek yogurt in place of cream or milk. This simple addition adds filling protein to your dish and provides a creamy texture and tangy flavor.
  • Bake foods like latkes and other potato pancake variations instead of frying them.

There are many simple ways to add potatoes to your diet, so have fun experimenting with them in your kitchen.

A Quick Review

Potatoes are among the most important food crops in the world. They're also the most-consumed vegetable in the United States. Potatoes are an important source of carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and potassium. 

All potatoes can fit into a healthy diet, but purple potatoes, red potatoes, and sweet potatoes—which are often grouped with potatoes—stand out due to their high amounts of protective plant compounds and essential nutrients. 

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