In Defense of the White Potato

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Lately, the white potato has been getting a bad rap. To defend this starchy vegetable, it helps to examine its history and nutritional composition.

Until the early 1900s, these tubers played an important role in preventing starvation and malnutrition worldwide, and continue to be an essential component of the diet for millions of people in South America, Africa, and Asia. Cultivated potatoes originated in South America more than 10,000 years ago. Tolerant to a variety of growing conditions, they are now grown in more than 160 counties. In 2017, the US ranked 5th in production, harvesting 19.9 million tons.

According to the Smithsonian, many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine there. More than that, as the historian William H. McNeill has argued, the potato led to empire: “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.” The potato, in other words, fueled the rise of the West, for better or worse. As northern Europeans immigrated to Appalachia, potatoes remained a staple in their diet. Long-term locals story-tell about surviving long winters by storing potatoes and cabbage in cellars or underground pits. A common supper was pinto beans, cabbage, potatoes and cornbread.

Nutritionally, one small baked potato, without butter, contains 131 calories and presents a significant amount of vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals. A potato in its unprocessed form is a nutritional powerhouse. Its reputation has been damaged due to the processing and preparation potatoes commonly endure.

Over the past 50 years, fresh potato consumption has declined by half. Only about one third of US potatoes is consumed fresh. Around 60 percent of the annual crop is processed into frozen products such as frozen french fries and wedges, chips, dehydrated potato granules and flakes and starch, while 6 percent is re-used as seed potato.

Avoiding all white potatoes is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Consuming large portions of fries or chips laden with salt on a daily basis is not a great idea for most people. But eating nutrient-rich potatoes prepared with health promoting ingredients is a different story.

This seasonal potato recipe is a tasty example of such a dish.

Taters and Grannies

Serves 8 – 10

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive or canola oil

6 cups coarsely chopped white potatoes, with or without skin

salt and pepper to taste

2 Granny Smith apples, coarsely chopped

½ cup green onions, sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced (optional)

1 cup 2% sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

Instructions:

In a large pan or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium and then add potatoes, salt and pepper, stirring to coat. Combine in apples and celery. Turn heat to low and cover, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes. Add green onions and continue to cook for 5 more minutes or until potatoes are soft. Top with shredded cheese and cook another minute or so to melt.