Potato! What have we done to you?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2008

The original settlers of Peru knew that they had a good thing when they discovered the potato. They eventually cultivated dozens of different strains, all of which were loaded with so much nutritional value that we could survive pretty well if we had nothing else to eat. Unless, of course, we modernize them.

A standard-sized potato, a little smaller than an average person's fist, weighs roughly 6 ounces. It delivers a modest 220 calories, a fair amount of fiber and protein (about 4 ½ grams each) and almost no sodium. It has about as much healthy potassium as the much-touted banana and about 2 calories worth of fat. Not quite the perfect food but it comes close.

Farmers breed a special kind of potato for baking, one that is particularly sweet. The way that the molecules of this starch are arranged allows them to break down quickly. If you've ever wondered why a mouthful of baked potato seems to get sweeter as you chew it it's because enzymes in your saliva split the starch molecule into its building blocks — sugar.

When we load up an Idaho baking potato with butter or sour cream the calorie count goes way past 500. You might enjoy it with yogurt, salsa or relish — a lot of flavor without the extra calories.

Each of us eats about a pound of potatoes a week — nearly half of that in french fries. For teenagers, about one-quarter of the vegetables — using that term very loosely — in their diet consist of french fries.

French fries (the name comes from the way that they are cut, not because they originated in France) are the poster child for nutritional pornography: naked, with no redeeming value. That message seems to be getting across to the public and we're eating fewer of them.

A sweet, well-bred potato starts the downward slide by shedding its skin. By the time it gets out of the deep fryer its calorie content has more than doubled. A 6-ounce serving of fast-food fries has about 522 calories, most of which come from fat, including 6 grams of trans fat.

Trans fat is associated with heart disease and an intake of 5 grams or more per day has been linked to a high risk of heart attack. Denmark has managed to drastically reduce the trans fat content of its french fries but the U.S. is still struggling to do the same.

High temperatures convert some chemicals in cooking oil within a few hours to substances that are capable of damaging blood vessels. That's no small matter when you realize that some restaurants only change the oil in deep-fryers every 10 days.

No french fry is complete without salt and an average serving of fries has about 20 times as much as that original six-ounce potato. A ketchup dip adds a little more.

How about french fries without the heart hazards? It's not so hard. Make your own by cutting potatoes into strips or wedges but leave the skin on. A light coating of heart-healthy olive oil before baking them at 450 degrees will give you a crunchy, tasty treat, fully redeemed.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.