Potatoes: The Perfect Food?

During the Great Depression, when novelist George Orwell studied the eating patterns of England’s poor, he named five dietary staples,  only one of which, the potato, could be called healthful. A food-oriented website notes that a baked potato (of course, minus butter, sour cream, bacon bits, etc.) is a low-calorie, high-fiber food that may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and offers some historical trivia:

Since potatoes are good sources of vitamin C, they were subsequently used on Spanish ships to prevent scurvy. In addition, many judged potatoes with suspicion since they were not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, potatoes initially had such a poor reputation in Europe that many people thought eating them would cause leprosy.

In the 18th century, a French army officer named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by the Prussians and, as a prisoner of war, was fed potatoes. On the enemy’s part, this was not only an economy measure but a calculated insult because the French, along with almost everyone else in Europe, believed that potatoes were only fit for animal feed.

Later, in 1772, Parmentier was instrumental in convincing the French government to declare potatoes edible. But still, only Spain and Ireland accepted the vegetable as suitable food for humans.

Eventually, King Louis XVI granted to his official a piece of ground on which to grow potatoes. With an enviable flair for public relations, Parmentier posted armed guards around the acreage, and secretly instructed them to accept bribes from citizens who wanted to steal the King’s valuable tubers. Thanks to the created illusion of value and the people’s satisfaction about getting away with something, the potato became accepted and popular.

The United Nations proclaimed 2008 the International Year of the Potato, noting that:

Potatoes are rich in carbohydrates, making them a good source of energy. They have the highest protein content […] in the family of root and tuber crops, and protein of a fairly high quality, with an amino-acid pattern that is well matched to human requirements. They are also very rich in vitamin C […] and contain a fifth of the recommended daily value of potassium.

On the other hand, according to LiveScience.com:

The problem is that potatoes have a high glycemic index, a measure of how quickly carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream. Foods with a higher glycemic index […] are associated with weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes. “The glucose release in the body is pretty large for most potato products since the starch is readily digestible.” This means the potato initially satisfies energy needs but, if that’s your primary food source, leaves you hungry and tired a few hours later…

In 2010, when the U.S. government’s WIC program decided not to pay for potatoes, Chris Voigt of the Washington State Potato commission protested by eating nothing but potatoes (and a bit of oil) for two months.

He consumed every variety of potato within reach, and at least 90% of the time he ate the skins. Obesity researcher and neurobiologist Stephen Guyenet says:

He shed 21 pounds, his fasting glucose decreased by 10 mg/dL (104 to 94 mg/dL), his serum triglycerides dropped by nearly 50%, his HDL cholesterol increased slightly, and his calculated LDL cholesterol dropped by a stunning 41% (142 to 84 mg/dL). The changes in his HDL, triglycerides and fasting glucose are consistent with improved insulin sensitivity…

Voigt described his subjective experience:

I felt really good on the diet. I had lots of energy, slept good at night, and seemed to avoid the cold viruses that circulated at home and work.

He also, according to his wife, stopped snoring during the potato experiment, and resumed snoring once he was back on a normal diet. He chalked it up to coincidence, but it might be worth looking into.

Bonus Fact

The ever-prophetic George Orwell made a prediction that tinned (canned) food would turn out to be “a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Potatoes,” WHFoods.com, undated
Source: “Antoine-Augustin Parmentier,” Newadvent.org, undated
Source: “Why Potato?,” FAO.org, 2008
Source: “Man Eating Nothing But Potatoes for 2 Months,” Livescience.com, 10/20/10
Source: “Interview with Chris Voigt of 20 Potatoes a Day,” Blogspot.com, 12/16/10
Photo credit: 16:9clue via Visualhunt/CC BY

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