Science unearths neglected health food: potatoes

Gardener with a handful of freshly harvested potatoes
Gardener with a handful of freshly harvested potatoes
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Move over goji berries and green tea and make way for the humble tattie.

The latest research suggests potatoes can play a significant role in helping combat everything from heart attacks to cancer and strokes and now it seems they could even stave off dementia.

Young carer and senior lady sitting beside table, drinking coffee

Young carer and senior lady sitting beside table, drinking coffee

The potato, once a staple on every dinner table in the UK, has fallen from grace in recent years.

This is partly because of fashion, with a rise in popularity of the likes of rice, pasta and couscous, but also due to a perception the starchy tubers aren’t very good for you because of their carb load.

Now agricultural research scientists from Scotland’s James Hutton Institute (JHI) believe it’s time to put spuds back on the menu as a healthy and nutritious part of a balanced diet.

The call comes from Professor Derek Stewart and his colleague Mark Taylor, who recently completed a new study reviewing the latest research into potatoes and nutrition for the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Stewart, a senior scientist and plant chemistry specialist at JHI, said: “Potatoes have got an unnecessarily bad name and consumption of fresh potatoes has been going down for a long time.

“I think the problem is that people look at tatties as just a source of carbohydrate, and of course if you’re eating loads and you’re deep-frying everything it’s not going to be particularly healthy. But I wouldn’t lay all the blame on the potato.

“I think a lot of misconceptions have been drummed up.

“The studies we looked at found a whole raft of different benefits. If you had to live the rest of your life on just one thing, you could do it on potatoes and remain pretty healthy. There are not many crops you can say that about.

“Potatoes are a great source of loads of vitamins and macro and micro minerals, which many people spend money buying supplements for.

“There are also non-nutrients like carotenoids and polyphenols. They’re pretty good for dietary fibre too.

“Epidemiology studies have been carried out on huge populations, looking at potatoes and cardiovascular disease, and what came up there was replacing meat in the diet with vegetables and potatoes is linked with a lower risk of heart attack.

“Other research has found a strong association with enhanced cognitive function in the elderly if they’re eating potatoes, although they haven’t yet identified an underpinning cause.”

Today around 46.8 million people are living with dementia around the globe, but that figure is set to more than treble by 2050.

It is one of the leading causes of death in the UK, claiming the lives of 15 per cent of women and eight per cent of men.

A spokeswoman from the charity Alzhemier Scotland, said: “What is good for your heart can also be good for your head.

“A good way to reduce your risk of dementia is to make some changes to your lifestyle, such as taking regular exercise, adopting a Mediterranean diet rich in essential nutrients, moderating your alcohol intake and not smoking.”

She says dementia is the biggest health and social care challenge facing today’s society.

There are more than 90,000 people living with dementia in Scotland and by 2020 it is estimated there will be more than one million people 
living with the condition in the UK.

She added: “Scotland has made significant progress in the past decade in improving the care, support and treatment for people with dementia, but much remains to be done.”

Unhealthy eating is widely blamed as a factor in Scotland’s poor health record.

Research has shown that children and young people north of the border follow a diet that falls short of national recommendations and is less healthy than that of their counterparts in other European countries.

And it’s getting worse – the latest health survey suggests only two in ten Scots are eating the guideline five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, while one in ten has none.

Stewart believes putting fresh home-grown spuds on our plates could help change this.

“By and large this is a glowing report for potatoes,” he said.

“Of course you have to take it with the caveat that potatoes have to be taken as part of a balanced diet, rather than going daft with them.

“We know they can deliver much of your recommended daily requirements for a lot of different vitamins, so being able to take it in different formats means it’s very versatile.

“You can take in potato in multiple different formats and in most of those formats it’s palatable, whether it’s mashed, roasted, boiled, baked or even chips. Certainly the elderly will eat potato, and once eaten it is well digested, which means they can easily take up the nutrients. Nutrition in the elderly is difficult because the way your body absorbs what you need from your food changes as you get older.

He believes the potato also suffers from always having been around – a lack of novelty.

“When you get something new and flashy like quinoa or different types of twisty pasta, potatoes have to compete on that basis,” he said.

“But I think the flexibility of the potato outstrips any other crops for food. The way you take potatoes in is only limited by your imagination. Apparently you can even make desserts from them.”

Mike Storey, head of resource management at AHDB, says potatoes are not only good for human health, their cultivation is less harmful to the planet than that of many other staples.

“Potatoes are not in the five-a-day because they are classed as starchy carbohydrates,” he said.

“They should be on your plate as a starchy carbohydrate, alongside other vegetables.

“They are high in vitamin C, iron and folate, plus a range of micronutrients as well as carotenoids and polyphenols. They are also a good source of dietary fibre.

“Potatoes have been maligned in terms of having a high glycaemic index, or GI, but that very much depends on the cooking method and potato variety. This new report shows the GI is not higher than for other starchy foods.

“Another positive aspect is their satiety level. They are very good in terms of producing a feeling of fullness –feeling satisfied after you’ve eaten them. This is great, reducing the urge to overeat and possibly helping combat obesity.

“Like all foods, potatoes should be eaten in moderation, but they have 
a really important part to 
play in the health of the nation.

“As well as that, they have a good profile in terms of environmental impact. Potatoes require less water than crops such as rice to put the same amount of calories on a plate. That’s great news for growers at home and abroad.

“There are lots of reasons why potatoes should be the nation’s favourite veg.”