Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States, contributing over 15% of farm sales receipts according to the USDA. Even with recent legislation, sliced and fried or combined with cream and mashed, potatoes account for nearly 40% of vegetables served in school lunches nationwide. Nearly a decade ago, when I first became involved in public health and planning school lunch menus, one of the first things I addressed was replacing the nearly daily serving of taters with vegetable options that provided a bit more color. Potatoes can be a component of a healthy whole food diet, if it weren’t for the fact that most potato consumption comes in the form of highly processed and fried treats. The more you get into it, the worse it looks for the beloved spud.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about the common potato or its more than 4,000 varieties, approximately 200 of which are commonly sold in the United States. In its basic baked form, a medium potato packs 4 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, and high levels of various vital nutrients and minerals in a delicious 160 calories (about the same as a single can of soda or a cup of juice). Yes, it is high glycemic, meaning it has a pretty quick and significant influence on blood sugar levels, but research has shown that in this regard, it is actually better than other staple foods, such as white rice and pasta, which are often used as a starchy alternative. Throw some sweet and multicolored (antioxidant-rich) varieties in there, and the glycemic load of potatoes looks even better. Other studies have even found that, likely due to the relatively high composition of fiber, regular consumption of fresh potatoes (in this particular case, the purple variety) can have a number of health benefits, including possibly encouraging healthy weight maintenance. And they’re extremely versatile and cost-effective.
So where did we go wrong? Thanks to economic considerations and (let’s be honest) taste, the form of the 126 pounds of potatoes each U.S. citizen consumes per year has drastically changed in the last few decades. In 1970, the amount of processed potatoes the average U.S. adult ate surpassed that of fresh potatoes and the trend has only continued. Today, the average U.S. adult consumes nearly 90 pounds of frozen or dehydrated potato products and less than 40 pounds of the non-processed variety. For us parents, French fries are actually the most consumed vegetable by infants and toddlers. And, processed potatoes are usually the vehicle for consumption of various fatty and sugar-rich condiments: Who eats their fries without ketchup (or in Utah, a combination of mayo and ketchup known as “fry sauce”) or hits the Thanksgiving buffet table without adding a ladle of gravy to their mashed potatoes? As mountains of scientific research has shown, you can pretty much draw a straight line association between one’s consumption of processed potatoes and one’s risk for obesity and various comorbidities. Researchers have even recently found an association between consumption of French fries and other deep fried potato treats and risk for early onset of vision deterioration.
Don’t worry (actually do), it gets worse. Due to the chemical reaction that occurs between the amino acid asparagine and sugars (specifically fructose and glucose) in highly starchy foods when under high heat (over 120 degrees Celsius), acrylamide is formed. While we are still unclear about the long-term health effects of consumption by humans, acrylamide is a chemical compound classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, and it has shown to have possible cancer-inducing properties in animal studies. This was unintentionally discovered when scientists were examining the nutritional composition of potato chips. Further research has discovered that darker and higher-antioxidant potato varieties have less acrylamide in general, that leaving the skin on greatly decreases formation, and that the levels of the possibly toxic chemical increase with the intensity of heat and duration of cooking time. There are nearly 1,000 micrograms of acrylamide in a single pound of potato chips; in a medium-sized baked sweet potato, the levels are almost immeasurably small.
While there may be more nutrient-dense or lower glycemic alternatives, an occasional potato baked in its skin, brushed with olive oil and with a dash of salt (or, as I prefer, with hot sauce) isn’t going to lay waste to anybody’s health or weight management efforts. Remove the skin, cut them, throw them in a boiling hot vat of vegetable oil, and complement them with creams or sugar-based condiments and you’ve turned one of nature’s best sources of energy into a health scourge. Don’t hate the food, hate the processing.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.