The Blue or Peruvian Potato: History and Nutritional Value.

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The history of the potato, or Solanum tuberosum, which found its way from the new world to the old world, where it became a ubiquitous vegetable. Also the blue potato or Solanum andigenum; varieties and the nutritional content of potatoes.

The blue or purple potato, botanical name Solanum andigenum, is one of many potato varieties that originate from the Andean valleys of Peru, and in particular the region surrounding Lake Titicaca. Potatoes have been cultivated in Peru and Bolivia for over 6000 years. They were a major food source for the Inca people and still are for the local population. In the 16th century Spanish sailors stocked their ships with potatoes for the long voyage back to Spain, principally because they realized that the potato cured scurvy. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to England in 1586, where it flourished in the country’s cold climate.

In the 17th century the potato became unpopular because many people believed it caused leprosy and other illnesses. Aside from Ireland, the potato was considered unfit for human consumption in Europe, only to be used as hog feed. The French government was so concerned that it banned the cultivation of potatoes in 1748. By the late 17th century bread, which had been a staple food, had became a rare commodity. The French agronomist Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, who had pioneered studies in nutritional chemistry, was given the task of relieving the bread shortage by popularizing the potato. He created a number of dishes using pureed and mashed potatoes, along with butter, seasonings and other vegetables, which helped make the potato unrecognizable. Many of the potato dishes he created such as potage parmentier, still bear his name.

In 1845 tragedy struck Ireland, which had come to rely on the potato as its principle crop, when a parasite infestation devastated crops and caused wide spread famine. Many left the emerald isle in a mass exodus to the United States. Many Irish immigrants must have carried potatoes with them to the new world because soon after the cultivation of potatoes spread across North America.

The potato is a perennial plant that is part of the Solanaceae family or deadly nightshade. There are over 3000 varieties of potato with only about 100 varieties being edible. So early claims that the potato made people ill would have held some truth if toxic varieties had been imported to Europe. 

The vast majority of potato varieties have white flesh, although there are many blue or purple fleshed varieties. Most of them are cultivated in the cooler Andean climates of South America, from Chile to Argentina. One particular waxy variety is cultivated in Finland, and is known as the blue Congo potato. The Congo is served at state banquets and is considered a delicacy in that country. In the USA a variety called the purple creamer has a sweet taste and flaky texture. Other varieties include the 'all blue', a larger potato, good for roasting or baking; the blue cloud with its attractive blue and white streaks; the lavender, so called for its color; and the Peruvian purple fingerling, which has brown-purple skin and purple rings through its white flesh. Purple or blue fleshed potatoes tend to be less waxy and are sweeter than white fleshed potatoes. They can be cooked any way although boiling them for too long will diminish their blue color.

Nutritional Value: The potato is extremely nutritious. It contains B complex vitamins, in particular vitamin B6. Potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, although they tend to lose their vitamin C content over time. Six months in storage can reduce the potato’s vitamin C content by half. They contain the minerals magnesium, potassium, niacin, iron and also folic acid and pantothenic acid. Potatoes are fat free and low calorie, however the potato's calorific content increases with cooking. One hundred grams of deep fried potatoes contain 540 calories as compared with the same amount of boiled potatoes at 89 calories; raw potatoes have 78 calories per 100 grams. 

Blue or purple varieties have an additional benefit in that they contain more and higher levels of flavonoids. Flavonoids are compounds which are found in the color pigments of fruits and vegetables. They provide us with antioxidant protection against chronic disease. In one study the University of Oslo in Norway found blue potatoes to have more than double the level of antioxidant rich flavonoids than either white fleshed or sweet potatoes. One of the many flavonoids found in blue or purple colored potatoes are anthocyanins. The interest and research into anthocyanins has been growing in recent years. They are anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-cancer. They also help neutralize damaging free radicals and may reduce the risk of heart disease. Although blue potatoes are a good source of anthocyanins, the most abundant source of anthocyanins in the western diet is strawberries, blueberries, grapes and red wine.

Mashed Peruvian purple fingerling potatoes.Image credit, flickr.com. Primary image, blue or purple potatoes. Image credit.  

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Peter Bilton