Health Information

Tater Talk

IMAGE It is true that potatoes are high in carbohydrates. If you are concerned about carbs, you can still include potatoes in your healthy diet.

A Starch or a Vegetable?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the potato is a starchy vegetable. This distinction comes from its status as a tuber, which is the name given to an enlarged underground stem of a plant. A tuber is a plant's storage site for starch—the complex form of carbohydrate. This makes the potato higher in carbohydrate, and therefore calories, than the average vegetable.

The Benefits of a Vegetable

The potato is a good source of fiber (with the skin on), vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, and niacin (vitamin B3). Like most vegetables, this tuber contains no fat. However, when it's fried or smothered in butter, sour cream, or similar toppings, the calories and fat really add up. For example, note the nutrient profile of French fries:

Baked potato with skin (1 medium) Mashed potatoes, homemade (1 cup) French fries (Burger King's medium)
Calories 220 222 360
Fat (g) 0.2 8.8 20
Carbohydrate (g) 51 35 41
Protein (g) 4.6 4 4
Vitamin C (mg) 26 12 4
Potassium (mg) 844 606 unknown
Vitamin B6 (mg) 0.70 0.48 unknown
Niacin (mg) 3.3 2.2 2.6
Sodium (mg) 16 620 590
Fiber (g) 4.8 4.2 3

Source: Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used

Building a Better Baked Potato

Mashed potatoes, hash browns, potato salad, French fries, potato pancakes, scalloped potatoes… What do these potato preparations have in common? Their high fat content. There are many ways to prepare potatoes, but the baked potato is the healthiest. However, many people load up a baked potato with fatty toppings like sour cream, butter, bacon, and cheese, which change this way of eating a potato from healthy to unhealthy. It can be a side dish or, with the right toppings, can stand alone as a meal.

Try some of these toppings to make your baked potato a bit healthier:

  • Baked beans
  • Black or red beans and salsa
  • Salsa and shredded low-fat cheese
  • Broccoli and low-fat cheddar
  • Tomato sauce and Parmesan or part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • Light cottage cheese
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Light margarine
  • Non-fat sour cream and chives or diced scallions
  • Sautéed vegetables in tomato sauce

Potatoes can be baked quickly in the microwave. Poke a few holes in the skin with a fork and cook for about 6-8 minutes per potato. Turn potatoes once during cooking. When baking potatoes in the oven, poke a few holes in them, but do not wrap them in aluminum foil. Foil seals in moisture resulting in a texture that is pasty instead of dry and fluffy. A potato can take an hour or more to cook thoroughly. Once baking is complete, though, the potato can be wrapped in foil to hold its warmth.

One Potato, Two Potato…

Potatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Here is a guide to help decide which spud to buy and how best to prepare it.

Type of Potato What It Looks Like What It Is Best For
Russet
  • Brown skin and white flesh
  • Light and fluffy when cooked
  • Baking
  • Mashing
  • Frying
  • Roasting
  • Soup
Round White
  • Smooth, light tan skin with white flesh
  • Creamy in texture
  • Hold their shape well after cooking
Can be used for any potato preparation, but are especially good for:
  • Frying
  • Scalloping
  • Pancakes
  • Gnocchi
Long White
  • Oval shaped, with thin tan skin
  • Firm, creamy texture when cooked
Can be used for any potato preparation, but are especially good for:
  • Roasting
  • Boiling
  • Salad
Round Red (often called "new potatoes")
  • Rosy red skin and white flesh
  • Firm, smooth, and moist texture
  • Salads
  • Roasting
  • Boiling
  • Steaming
Yellow Flesh
  • Golden in color
  • Dense creamy texture
  • Can be used for any potato preparation
Blue and Purple (not as common in the United States)
  • Subtle nutty flavor and flesh that ranges in color from dark blue or lavender to white
  • Microwaving
  • Steaming
  • Baking

Selecting and Storing Your Spuds

Here are some tips for handling potatoes:

  • At the market:
    • Select potatoes that are firm, smooth, and fairly clean.
    • Avoid potatoes that are wrinkled or have wilted skins, soft dark areas, cut surfaces, or a green appearance.
    • Choose potatoes of similar size (or cut them into similar size) for even cooking time.
  • At home:
    • Store potatoes in a cool, dark place that is well ventilated. The ideal storage temperature is 45°F-50°F (7.2°C-10°C).
    • Do not refrigerate potatoes. If they are stored below 42°F (5.5°C), the starch will be converted to sugar, which changes the taste and causes potatoes to darken when cooked.
    • Avoid prolonged exposure to light, which causes potatoes to turn green. This greening causes a bitter flavor, so any green areas should be cut off before cooking.
    • If your potatoes develop sprouts, trim them off before using.
    • If you cut potatoes ahead of time, they can be stored in cold water before cooking to prevent discoloration. However, do not leave them in water for more than two hours, because the water-soluble nutrients will seep out into the water.
    • To retain water-soluble nutrients, save and use the soaking and/or cooking water.
    • Keep the skins on potatoes in order to retain more of the nutrients, including fiber. Scrub them with a vegetable brush or clean sponge before using.
    • Refrigerate leftover potatoes within two hours after cooking.
  • ChooseMyPlate.gov

    http://www.choosemyplate.gov/

  • Idaho Potato Commission

    http://www.idahopotatoes.org/

  • Dietitians of Canada

    http://www.dietitians.ca/

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

  • Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 1998.

  • Idaho Potato Commission website. Available at: http://www.idahopotatoes.org. Accessed May 21, 2009.

  • Mueller's spaghetti. Foodpicker.org website. Available at: http://foodpicker.org/categories/pasta/foodizer.asp?paid=432. Accessed March 22, 2011.

  • Potatoes, white, flesh and skin, baked. Foodpicker.org website. Available at: http://foodpicker.org/categories/potatoes/foodizer.asp?poid=130. Accessed March 22, 2011.

  • Squash, summer zucchini with skin, raw. Foodpicker.org website. Available at: http://foodpicker.org/categories/vegetables/foodizer.asp?vid=136. Accessed March 22, 2011.

  • United States Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate.gov website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/. Accessed June 24, 2011.