by Sue Glennie
All too often the potato is guilty by its association with oily chips, mayonnaise-laced potato salad and butter-rich mash. In its natural state, the humble spud is low in kilojoules, naturally fat-free, stuffed with vitamins and minerals, contains no cholesterol and, in its jacket, is a great source of fibre.
Contrary to popular belief, the potato didn’t originate in Ireland. This golden globe is indigenous to the foothills of the windswept Andes in South America. Europeans first encountered potatoes in 1537 when Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish explorer, arrived in Peru. The Peruvians believed potatoes had medicinal qualities and rubbed them on the skin of sick patients. The Spanish conquistadors took some potatoes back to Europe with them as an exotic discovery, but they were not an instant success. Initially, people were very suspicious and avoided this new food because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, was suspected to cause leprosy and even became known as the spoor of witches. The Industrial Revolution in Britain changed their minds. As the cities and towns filled up with people in search of better fortunes, cheap, energy-rich food was in high demand, and the potato filled that gap perfectly. It quickly became the basis of many people’s diet around the world.
When you hear the word potato, carbohydrates immediately jump to mind, right? Even so, on average, you’ll find only 354 kilojoules in 100 grams of boiled potato with the skin on. Within these 100 grams, only 0,1 per cent is fat, which makes it ideal if you’re watching your weight.
Different cooking methods affect the nutritional profile of potatoes dramatically and often the mysterious additional kilojoules come from the things we add to our potatoes to make them more interesting.
Thanks to the recent vogue for raw food, we now know that raw potatoes are not toxic per se (glycoalkaloids like solanine are mostly contained in the stems and leaves of the potato plant). At the other extreme, heat and liquid (cooking) result in gelatinisation of the potato starch, as the starch granules swell and burst, eventually losing their structure completely and turning the water into an increasingly viscous mass. This type of starch is used in the preparation of all those refined foods we are often told to avoid, from wine gums and noodles to hot dog sausages and Vodka. For the most nutritious results, it is best to boil potatoes for the shortest amount of time. This conserves the vitamins and minerals that tend to dissolve during extended cooking times. Since potatoes are pretty insipid on their own, it is tempting to add fats, acids or fibre to improve the taste and, if this is done with low-fat eating in mind, this has the added bonus of slowing down the digestive effects of the enzymes that break down the potatoes into glucose. For example, adding a little extra virgin olive oil (fat), vinegar (acid), a few chopped raw vegetables (fibre) or lemon juice (acid) will only improve your boiled potatoes in taste and nutrition.
In your pocket
The simple starchy structure means that potatoes release their carbohydrate content pretty readily and this makes them an ideal alternative to the sweet energy gels that we struggle to tolerate, particularly after a few days of hard riding.
Karlien Smit, a sports nutritionist from the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, says “A great high GI boost during a race is mashed potato. Scoop the mash into a sandwich bag, squeeze it into the corner and knot it. You can keep this in your pocket and just bite the tip off, for a quick savory energy boost.”
Packs a good punch
Avoid peeling your spuds, as the potassium concentration is highest in and just below the skin. There are also large amounts of vitamins in potatoes. You can get up to 17 milligrams of Vitamin C from only 100 grams of boiled potato. So, by eating one medium potato with its skin on, you could get almost half of what you need a day in one go. They also contain a fair amount of Vitamin B1 and B6, which help in the normal functioning of the nervous system and heart and in metabolising fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Eaten with the skin, potatoes are more nutritious, have a lower glycaemic index, which means they release their energy more gradually and you feel full for longer after eating them.
Interestingly enough, baby potatoes seem to have a slightly different molecular structure from their more mature relatives and this makes them not just more convenient to carry, but also an ideal source of slower-release fuel for long efforts. What can be simpler than a little olive oil and salt added to boiled baby potatoes?
A mounting body of research suggests that carbohydrates combined with protein not only improves recovery rates, and muscle repair, but can also enhance endurance. Like most plant proteins, the protein in potatoes lacks essential amino acids. But, by combining a potato with animal protein, it becomes a complete protein. Here are some animal protein options to add to your spud:
1 cup low fat cottage cheese (contains 28 grams of protein)
1 tin tuna (contains 22 grams of protein)
250 grams lean beef (contains 66 grams of protein)
1 skinless chicken breast (contains 27 grams of protein)
3 egg whites (contains 12 grams of protein)
The sweeter sister
Sweet potatoes might taste sweeter, but they’re by no means naughtier than normal potatoes – a medium sized boiled sweet potato may contain just 600 kilojoules. In South Africa we get the usual white sweet potato, but orange varieties are also occasionally available. They are also good sources of Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and Vitamin C, so are naturally great antioxidant foods. Just 100 grams of boiled sweet potato can provide:
24 milligrams Vitamin C
3 grams fibre (more than a serving of oatmeal)
20 milligrams magnesium
28 milligrams calcium
22 milligrams calcium
348 milligrams of potassium According to dietician, Renee McGregor, a baked sweet potato makes an excellent meal the night before a race. Split the baked sweet potato and fill it with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, mixed with a little garlic and olive oil and topped with about 40 grams of crumbed feta cheese. The sweet potato is a better choice for this kind of meal than an ordinary potato, as it not only releases energy slowly and keeps those pre race chocolate binge jitters at bay, but also provides some immune-boosting beta-carotene, with extra calcium from the feta.