Potatoes: A Veggie with Phyto-Power


If, like me, you tend to associate phytochemicals with colorful produce, you’re right. Many red, green, yellow-orange and blue-purple fruits and veggies get both their color and their health-promoting properties from naturally occurring phytochemicals. But if you ignore white, you may be missing an important part of the spectrum.

For example, I was surprised to learn that potatoes, including white varieties, are a source of many beneficial phytochemicals including phenolics, flavonoids, carotenoids and others. When you add these healthful micronutrients to the essential vitamins, minerals and fiber content of potatoes, you’re looking at a very nutrient-rich tuber!

Potato profiling

When scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the USDA began analyzing the phytochemical content of potatoes, they turned up 60 different compounds in the skins and flesh of 100 wild and commercially grown potatoes, including white and pigmented varieties. Their profile of Red and Norkotah (a variety of Russet) potatoes, for example, revealed a total dietary-phenolics content in the range of broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts!

Commenting on his findings, ARS research geneticist Roy Navarre said potatoes can be “packed with phenolic compounds, which have a wide range of health-promoting properties, including antioxidant activity.”

Spud Specifics

Here’s what the ARS phytochemical profilers found when they began taking a closer look at potatoes.

  • Flavonoids–This subclass of polyphenols is among the most potent and abundant antioxidants in our diet. A flavonoid-rich diet has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, cardio-vascular disease and other chronic diseases.
  • QuercetinOne of the key flavonoids in potatoes is quercetin, which has been linked to a lower risk of asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.
  • KukoaminesScientists identified five different kinds of kukoamines in potatoes. Although research is preliminary, this flavonoid is believed to help lower blood pressure.
  • CarotenoidsPotatoes contain a variety of carotenoids, fat-soluble phytochemicals with a Vitamin-A-like structure that have strong antioxidant and other potentially protective properties.
  • Lutein and ZeaxanthinThe two most predominant carotenoids in potatoes are lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help prevent macular degeneration and some forms of cancer.
  • Caffeic acidThis phenolic acid is associated with antioxidant activity and cancer prevention properties.

Many of the beneficial phytochemicals in potatoes are contained in the potato skin, which is also the primary source of dietary fiber.

The Soothing Tuber

Baked potatoes are one of humankind’s best-loved “comfort foods.” Given their happiness-inducing aroma, this seems appropriate. Even the potato’s Latin classification, solanum tuberosum, or “soothing tuber,” seems to bear witness to the potato’s powers to satisfy. They taste good, they smell good, they’re filling and we know they satisfy many of our nutritional needs as well.

In addition to the less-well-known phytochemicals mentioned above, these essential nutrients make the baked potato a very healthy package.

  • PotassiumA medium baked potato provides 21% of the recommended daily allowance of this mineral that is vital to maintaining healthy blood pressure levels – more than bananas!
  • Vitamin C– Baked potatoes are a good source of this antioxidant vitamin, which has many critical functions in the body, including strengthening the immune system and fighting disease.
  • Vitamin B6– Baked potatoes are rich in this B vitamin, which is essential to the formation of new cells in the body and is needed for a healthy nervous system and cardio-vascular system.
  • Fiber– Baked potatoes–with skins–are a good source of dietary fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and protects against cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases
  • And more– Baked potatoes provide manganese, folate, niacin, phosphorous, copper, iron…and other vitamins and minerals our bodies need to stay healthy.

Combine the nutritional benefits of baked potatoes with their moderate calorie count (just 110 calories in a medium baked potato), and you have a nutrient-rich vegetable that can, and does, soothe many a hungry appetite.

Red, green, yellow-orange, blue-purple…and white

A healthy diet requires the full spectrum of essential vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and phytochemicals––and that means eating the full spectrum of colorful fruits and vegetables. Potatoes come in many colors. But most of the spuds the average American eats every year are white. I like knowing they’re getting beneficial phytochemicals in every bite.

Jay McCrum


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