Americans love potatoes, consuming 110 pounds per person per year, according to Northern Plains Potato Growers. Although a rare few may enjoy eating raw potatoes, most prefer theirs cooked. And, due to possible risks of consuming the uncooked tubers, that's likely the safest way to eat them.
Eating Raw Potatoes
The flavor and texture of uncooked potatoes isn't widely appealing. Cooking reduces the starches in potatoes and makes them more tender; when eaten raw, they have a rather chalky consistency. Raw potatoes can also have a bitter flavor that mellows when they are cooked.
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Yet, people do eat spuds au natural, in raw potato salad and even chomping on them whole like an apple. But is that good for you? Yes and no.
The Good: Raw Potato Starch
Potatoes contain resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that the body can't process. Instead of being digested in the small intestine, it ferments in the large intestine. This is actually a good thing, as it becomes a food source, or prebiotic, for healthy bacteria in the gut.
The population of gut bacteria — called the microbiome — plays an important role in human health. A healthy microbiome is associated with a reduced risk of many diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, according to The Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health at the University of Washington.
But cooked potatoes aren't a great source of resistant starch, because heat treatment breaks down the starches. Resistant starch makes up 47 to 59 percent of the dry matter of raw potatoes, but only 2 to 4 percent of cooked potatoes, according to a research review published in Nutrients in November 2018.
Read more: Healthy Carbs You Should Be Eating More Of
The Bad: Difficult Digestion and Toxicity
Foods that are difficult to digest are more likely to cause gastric distress. According to Oregon State University, excess amounts of resistant starch can cause, gas, bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. These symptoms may be minimized with a gradual increase in intake over time, but this is highly individual. People with certain digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, may not be able to tolerate resistant starch.
You may also experience gastric distress if you eat a raw potato that is green or has sprouted. Potatoes contain substances called glycoalkaloids, which are natural toxins, reports the National Capital Poison Center. The content of these toxins is lowest in the white flesh and higher in the skin and "eyes." It's even higher in green skin and sprouts. Toxicity is exacerbated if there is physical injury to the potato or it is stored in low temperatures or bright light.
Glycoalkaloid toxicity leads to cell disruption, potentially resulting in vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In some cases, it may cause headache, fever, flushing and confusion. There have even been a few cases of death.
Cooking doesn't destroy glycoalkaloids, so both raw and cooked potatoes can carry risk. However, removing the skin from the potato can reduce the toxins. If you want to consume a raw potato, don't choose one that's been in storage for a long time or has visible damage, green skin or sprouts, and peel it before eating.
Read more: A Complete Guide to Complex Carbohydrates
Are Cooked Potatoes Healthy?
Eating raw potatoes regularly probably isn't a good idea. But even eating cooked potatoes frequently may not be the healthiest choice.
Even though potatoes are technically vegetables, some well-known health organizations don't count them as such in their recommendations for healthy diets. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, for example, doesn't, and explains that, although potatoes do contain vital nutrients, they are also high in a type of carbohydrate that has negative effects on blood sugar and insulin.
The body digests the carbs in potatoes quickly, converting them to glucose which floods into the bloodstream. This raises blood sugar and insulin levels sharply, and is then followed by a steep drop. This can cause you to feel hungry again soon after your meal and can lead to overeating. According to Harvard, eating a lot of potatoes can contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
- Northern Plains Potato Growers: "Potato Fun Facts"
- The Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health at the University of Washington: "What Is the Microbiome?"
- Nutrients: "Starchy Carbohydrates in a Healthy Diet: The Role of the Humble Potato"
- Oregon State University: "Fiber"
- National Capital Poison Center: "Are Sprouted Potatoes Safe to Eat?"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Problem With Potatoes"