Potato's Nutritional, Medicinal Value & Biodegradable Polystyrene Substitute

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Benguet, 21 August 2009. Potatoes may be known as “poor man’s food” but its nutritive values can most certainly make any poor man rich – in health, that is.

Currently, potato is the fourth largest source of food in the world – after rice, wheat, and corn. Every year, 350 million tons of potatoes are produced, 52 % of these in developing countries.

Freshly harvested, potato contains about 80% water and 20% dry matter. About 60-80% of the dry matter is starch. On a dry weight basis, the protein content of potato is similar to that of cereals and is very high in comparison with other roots and tubers.

“Potatoes are rich in several micronutrients, especially vitamin C – eaten with its skin, a single medium-sized potato of 150 grams provides nearly half the daily adult requirement (100 milligrams),” says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

History records showed that during the Alaskan Klondike gold rush, (1897-1898) potatoes were practically worth their weight in gold. Potatoes were so valued for their vitamin C content that miners traded gold for potatoes.

Not only that, the potato is a moderate source of iron, and its high vitamin C content promotes iron absorption. It is a good source of vitamins B1, B3 and B6 and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, and contains folate, pantothenic acid and riboflavin. Potatoes also contain dietary antioxidants, which may play a part in preventing diseases related to ageing, and dietary fiber, which benefits health.

Basically, potato is fat free, cholesterol free, and low in calories, according to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology.

However, the nutritive value of a meal containing potato depends on other components served with them and on the method of preparation. “By itself, potato is not fattening (and the feeling of satiety that comes from eating potato can actually help people to control their weight),” the UN agency explains.

However, preparing and serving potatoes with high-fat ingredients raises the caloric value of the dish. “Since the starch in raw potato cannot be digested by humans, they are prepared for consumption by boiling (with or without the skin), baking or frying,” FAO points out.

Each preparation method affects potato composition in a different way, but all reduce fiber and protein content, due to leaching into cooking water and oil, destruction by heat treatment or chemical changes such as oxidation.

Boiling – the most common method of potato preparation worldwide – causes a significant loss of vitamin C, especially in peeled potatoes. For French fries and chips, frying for a short time in hot oil (140 ºC to 180 ºC) results in high absorption of fat and significantly reduces mineral and ascorbic acid content. In general, baking causes slightly higher losses of vitamin C than boiling, due to the higher oven temperatures, but losses of other vitamins and minerals during baking are lower.

Here’s something for the trivia buffs. When Scotch-Irish immigrants started to settle in Maine in 1791, they brought potatoes along into what was to become one of the United States. However, it was American president Thomas Jefferson who introduced pomme frites to his people after his return from a trip to Paris. Now as American as apple pie, they are promoted as “American fries” at MacDonald’s and similar eateries in other parts of the world. (But in the Philippines, they are still called “French fries”.)

In 1853, railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were cut too thick and sent them back to the kitchen at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs, NY. To spite his haughty guest, Chef George Crum sliced some potatoes paper thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them. To everyone’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved his “Saratoga Crunch Chips,” and potato chips have been popular ever since.

But there’s more to potato than French fries and potato chips. In the past, the potato has been considered as a medicinal plant. To carry a raw potato in the pocket was an old-fashioned remedy against rheumatism that modern research has proved to have a scientific basis.

Ladies in the olden times had special bags or pockets made in their dresses in which to carry one or more small raw potatoes for the purpose of avoiding rheumatism. Successful experiments in the treatment of rheumatism and gout have in the last few years been made with preparations of raw potato juice.

In cases of gout, rheumatism and lumbago, the acute pain is much relieved by fomentations of the prepared juice followed by an application of liniment and ointment. Sprains and bruises have also been successfully treated by the potato-juice preparations.

Hot potato water has in years past been a remedy for some forms of rheumatism. A popular potato remedy for rheumatism was made by cutting up the tubers, infusing them together with the fresh stalks and unripe berries for some hours in cold water, and applying in the form of a cold compress. The potatoes were not peeled.

Meanwhile, starch from potato is also widely used by the pharmaceutical, textile, wood and paper industries as an adhesive, binder, texture agent and filler, and by oil drilling firms to wash boreholes. Potato starch is a 100% biodegradable substitute for polystyrene and other plastics and used, for example, in disposable plates, dishes and knives.

Indeed, potato has come a long, long way. The name “potato” is believed to be derived from the Inca name papa. The association with Ireland is thought to be responsible for the name “Irish potato,” which is retained even though potatoes are grown almost all over the world. “The potato is continuing its march,” says a spokesman for the International Potato Center. “There’s just something about potatoes that everyone likes. It goes with anything.”

At first, potato was thought to be poisonous. Antoinette Auguste Parmentier, a French pharmacist, thought otherwise. He persuaded King Louis XVI to let him plant a field of the tubers and to station royal guards around it by day but leave it unguarded at night. As the canny pharmacist expected, peasants slipped in and raided the plot under cover of darkness. Soon, potatoes were being eaten all over the realm.

Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes in about 200 BC. In 1536, Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, became aware of the potato, and carried them to Europe. Before the end of the sixteenth century families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. In the Philippines, potato was introduced by the Spaniards.

In the Philippones, potato is grown mostly in Benguet, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the country’s total production. The other major producers are Davao del Sur, Mount Province, and Bukidnon.