Page last updated at 00:40 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Time to rethink the potato?

By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

The Potato Council is trying to garner support for its campaign to reclassify the tuber as a "supercarb" - recognising its "unique dual identity" as both carbohydrate and vegetable.

It has not been a great decade for the spud

A petition is being put to Downing Street asking for such recognition amid what the industry body believes is widespread confusion about the health benefits of the spud.

Are the potato people on to something, or simply trying to bamboozle the health-conscious with a new but meaningless name?

The noughties were not a good decade for the potato.

Spurned by dieters on low-carbohydrate regimens such as Atkins, the vegetable also appeared to score poorly on the Glycaemic Index (GI) - which measures how quickly foods are broken down. The slower, the better - and the potato was quick.

And then it seemed it was no longer a vegetable at all, passed over by the Department of Health when it compiled its list of "five-a-day".

In similar programmes in other countries, the potato was not overlooked. In the US the potato earned a place on the "More Matters" campaign.

Potatoes were instead classified in the UK as a "starchy food" - not to be ignored, but not one we needed encouragement to eat.

It seemed a far-cry from the years of World War II when government posters asked: "Why stop at serving them once a day? Have them twice, or even three times, for breakfast, dinner and supper".

Potatoes, the public were told, would keep you warm and guard against infection.

"I don't like the term supercarb at all - it takes us from science into marketing - but I do understand the frustration with the way we talk about potatoes, of which I am a great fan," says Ursula Arens of the British Dietetic Association.

"The potato has had an unfair press and has really suffered from problems with terminology - 'starchy' signals fat, dry, dull, undynamic - when in fact it should be conveyed as something that is really good to have on your plate."

On the boil

A portion of boiled new potatoes contains a quarter of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C - more than a portion of carrots or an apple - and contains nearly a third of daily levels of vitamin B6, some potassium, and even protein.

With the skin on a potato it also offers fibre and iron.

There is no agreed definition of superfoods - it is a marketing term given to foods by industry
Food Standards Agency

While it is starchy, work published in the British Nutrition Journal attacked the "unjustified generalisation" of the potato when it came to the GI index, arguing that everything depended on how the vegetable was prepared - an overcooked french fry was quite different from the boiled, cooled new potato.

Herein lies one of the problem of the potato, and it has been suggested, the basis for fears that inclusion on the five-a-day would be tantamount to a carte blanche to eat chips.

Perhaps more so than any other vegetable, the potato is particularly vulnerable to being mashed up with a great hunk of butter or dunked in the deep fat fryer.

"Potatoes are an important source of Vitamin C. They are healthiest when baked or as boiled new potatoes in their skins. Vitamin C is leached if the are peeled and boiled in a lot of water," says Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition & dietetics at King's College, London.

But there is still room for the nation's favourite. "Big, fresh cut chips only take up about 7% fat because of their smaller surface area, and oven chips are OK as they only contain 5% fat."

Potato power

The very notion that any food is "super" is frowned upon on by the Food Standards Agency.

"There is no agreed scientific definition of superfoods," a spokesman said. Indeed suggestions that any specific fruit or vegetable can confer particular protection against disease have yet to be proven - but the potato appears to hold some promise.

Vitamin C: Helps the body absorb calcium and iron
Vitamin B6: Helps carry oxygen around the body
Potassium: Controls the balance of fluids in the body
Fibre: Aids the digestive system
Iron: Helps form red blood cells

Researchers at the Institute of Food Research have found molecules in potatoes called kukoamines, which they believe could lower blood pressure, while a separate study from the same centre suggested that a substance called pectin - found in many fruit and vegetables - may protect against cancer.

"We've seen it in the laboratory, what we are trying to establish now is whether this molecule is actually released in the human body.

We do know that potatoes are particularly rich in pectin," says the institute's Professor Vic Morris.

"It is certainly a good food source, but it does have a high starch content. We should think definitely think of the potato as an important vegetable - just let's not perhaps eat too many."

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