Our national treasure, the potato, is the king of superfoods

Next Friday is National Potato Day and Fiann Ó Nualláin wants us to see the humble spud in a new light.

Our national treasure, the potato, is the king of superfoods

I must confess that I, rather like Popeye, prefer my iron from spinach and not from a chocolate coated wheat cereal with added iron and B vitamins (added because the original nutrients got lost during processing).

And I don’t much relish the thoughts of a maple syrup and treacle based flap jack ‘enriched’ with extract of acai berry to give me energy and stamina when I can get all the healthy anthocyanins (the blue pigment that makes acai super) and vitamin C that I need, from the blackberries and blueberries in my garden and local supermarket – without the tsunami of added sugar.

I don’t need 3 of my five a day to be flown in from the Amazon basin when I know I can get as much antioxidants by being selective with Irish produce.

So I have a prejudice for the natural, for the unprocessed, for the sustainable ‘super foods’.

But I would probably break all those rules if the Peruvian potato had not naturalised here and we had to import it. For me, it is the king of superfoods.

“Superfood” is a buzz word utilised to promote and sell food items with constituents that positively impact upon health and bodily functionality.

"Albeit a marketing term, it does remind us that food is more than fuel – more than just the calories to get you through the day – that food is also packed with nutrition to enable cellular regeneration, cognitive function and optimum physical performance.

The nutrients in food maintain chemical activities in our brain and the exchanges between receptors that signal a muscle to contract or a valve to open or support the formation of bone, the support of collagen, or the health of our immune system.

Some foods are better than others at doing all of that — either because they are so nutrient dense that we get a lot of health components in each bite — or because they have certain constituents that prompt a particularly healthy outcome.

The carotene (orange pigment) in carrots help with macular protection – now you know why your mother was right when she said “you never see a rabbit wearing glasses”.

The lycopene (red pigment) in tomatoes is there to stop the tomato skin blistering in the sun and it turns out eating it helps boost our own SPF.

Very often these super foods have a pigment or other phytochemical that pushes a health button, but the humble spud without fanfare is working levers and cranks, buttons and dials on the health front.

There is more vitamin C in a potato than there is in an orange, more fibre than an apple and more potassium than a banana.

Vitamin C is essential for cellular repair and a functioning immune system. One medium jacket potato provides almost half the RDA of vitamin C in one go.

Potassium is a key electrolyte that conducts electrical charges in our body – in fact all cells, nerves and body fluids rely on potassium to function properly.

A 175g portion of boiled salad potatoes can provide approximately 20% of your RDA of potassium, more if you leave the skins on. Fibre plays an essential role in your digestive health but also benefits heart, circulatory and skin health.

The soluble fibre in potatoes can assist with blood sugar control and weight management issues too. The misconception of a ‘fattening’ potato comes from cooking it in fat or serving it with fat.

Potatoes are fat free, low sodium and high energy – better still they contain over 60 phytochemicals that can help you fight illness, slow ageing and even feel happier. So how do they stack up compared to other super foods?

Regularly mentioned in the super food category are Goji berries (iron and vit C rich) from the plant Lycium chinense of the Solanaceae family. That is the same family as potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and guess what - both share a compound called kukoamine which lowers blood-pressure.

The soluble fibre in potato also binds to excess cholesterol in the blood stream and carries it away to the intestines to be eliminated. The potassium in potatoes acts as a vasodilator (makes blood vessel widener) and so helps lower blood pressure and stress on our veins and capillaries.

Potatoes are also a good source of vitamin B6 which converts homocysteine molecules in our bloodstream into methionine - a component useful in creating new proteins.

Homocysteine is often raised by stress and too much of it can damage blood vessel walls, and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Goji berries are utilised by naturopaths to strengthen the immune system and protect the body from premature ageing, to increase longevity and sexual energy and also to reduce the craving for sugar. Potatoes too, are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, while their alkalinising effect and wholesome nutrition can benefit life expectancy.

When potatoes first arrived from the new world back in the 16th century they came with the stories that Amazonian women ate them to stimulate their sex drive – turns out that the potato has a similar effect on the body to chocolate -— it increases serotonin levels and puts you in a more amenable mood but also the complex carbs make it a powerhouse of energy that can fuel a strong libido and let’s just say that the vasodilation is worth mentioning, too.

I can’t see a plate of spuds replacing a box of chocs on Valentine’s Day, but maybe they should be on the menu for date night. Lastly, potatoes reduce sugar cravings by being filling and by introducing tryptophan into the system which is the hit we get from comfort foods - so it satiates on many levels.

Amla aka Indian gooseberry is the latest super hero on the block, praised for its high vitamin C content but before the ‘limeys’ were sucking on limes, Spanish sailors were scoffing boiled potatoes on their way home from the New World to ward off scurvy.

A single medium potato yields almost half of our RDA levels.

Baked potatoes retain more vitamin C than boiled, but boiled in skins retain more vitamin C than peeled potatoes. Steaming holds in more of the water soluble vitamin C and the bi vitamins too.

Raw potatoes applied to the skin impart vitamin C and other phytochemicals that soothe burns and UV damage, tighten skin and exfoliate dead cells – a raw potato face mask might just be the perfect home spa before your next big social outing.

Simply grate or blitz a peeled raw potato and utilise it as a 5-minute face mask – rinse it off with some cooled green tea. Many commercial face creams and mattifying powders utilize potato starch as a textural enhancement and for its product-boosting nature.

Indian gooseberry is also promoted on the basis of its zinc, vitamin B complex and carotene content that helps prevent various diseases.

Carotene may be better sourced from a sweet potato but the package of B vitamins in a potato are potent and when it comes to zinc, a large baked potato yields close to 1 milligram of it – that’s double the quantity you would get from a cup of raw kale. So homegrown Irish potatoes may just trump this one too.

We have all heard green tea heralded as the potent antioxidant that also helps you slim – well potatoes rank higher than green tea on the ORAC scale (that’s their Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity – how effectively they kill off dangerous free radicals).

In terms of weight loss, potatoes are fat-free but they can also help keep arteries fat-free – they are just packed with flavonoids that naturally lower levels of the bad (LDL) cholesterol, have enough fiber to stripe out excess cholesterol, making you feel full and lessen cravings.

A single baked potato provides almost 12 per cent of the daily recommended amount of fibre (mirroring whole grain breads and cereals).

If you look at the top 10 of super foods – an ever changing list with some regulars – it is interesting to see the ranking.

When it comes to blueberries, apart from the antioxidants it is the vit C and high water content which hydrates your skin and other cells of the body. Potatoes are C rich and often 70-80% water.

Pistachios often edge almonds off the list as they contain slightly more phytosterols and soluble fibre — two compounds shown to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but we have seen how potatoes mop that one up too.

Oats make the grade as a slow release energy food that is rich in B vitamins— well, potatoes fill you up too, and are also vitamin B rich. Potatoes contain five of the eight B vitamins and in nice bioavailable quantities.

A 175g serving of boiled potatoes provides around 10-11% of your RDA of vitamin B1, Approximately 25-30% of your RDA of vitamin B6, 9% of your RDA of Folic Acid (b9), around 7-8 % of niacin (b3) and a healthy dose of pantothenic acid (b5). More, if you leave the skin on, more if you steam or bake.

So all round potatoes are yielding healthy components that match the properties on offer from superfoods. Maybe we need to stop thinking of it as the humble spud and think of it as a super-spud.

The culinary versatility and the convenience of potatoes make their usability and frequency of usability a real possibility as a nutritional therapy — as a genuine superfood.

As the new Bord Bia campaign to promote the healthy potato states, they are ‘more than a bit on the side’.

To maximize your enjoyment from super-spuds visit www.potatoe.ie

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