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A fat little fat-free friend

A fat little fat-free friend

Unfairly convicted, the potato pleads not guilty of the crime of obesity

Gourmands and weight‑watchers, settle your ispute around this chapter. It deals with scientific data. It revises common convic­tions. It boosts the ideas which physicians and nutri­tionists defend. It will rid you of your scruples and put you in a good mood when you gather around a dish of potatoes.

How did the notion that potatoes were harmful to health generate in people's minds? The fact that it belongs to the botanical family Solanaceae probably roused the suspicion of certain 17th century scien­tists. The news spread that the potato had hallucin­ogenic and narcotic cousins (such as the mandrake and the deadly nightshade) and this was used to preserve eating habits which were difficult to change. Wasn't it true that in the 18th century the potato was accused of causing leprosy in certain French provinces and therefore forbidden? And yet, it was adored by the Irish during that same period.

This nation, for whom the potato was the staff of life, was hardest hit by a tragedy in history that sadly demon­strated how great the nutritional value of our good potato is. In the summer of 1845 a fungus, today known as Phytophthora infestans (late blight) destroyed the entire harvest. The grubbed‑up potatoes rotted and sent an unbearable stench across the countryside. Those were dark hours for the Irish who had no substitute for the "Murphy"! How was a daily ration of 8 to 10 pounds for an average adult going to be replaced? The population not only suffered from famine but also from many types of eye diseases, some of which led to blindness. A great many cases of mental disorders were recorded. Today, we know that these serious ailments were caused by the absence of vitaminized food.

Was it foreknowledge or simply experience which led the navigators of those days to never cast off their mooring ropes without a provision of potatoes to prevent scurvy among their crews?

By its presence on board alone, our inoffensive South‑American friend had even acquired, in the eyes of the crew, the magic power of repelling the disease.

Don't let us make fun of these superstitions. For, although we do know today that our organism needs vitamins, mineral salts (indeed, we do not neglect our regular little tablet cures, do we?) and whatever else, we are quite prepared to omit bread, potatoes and legumes from our diets in order to lose superfluous pounds. Surely, the men of science, which nutrition­ists are, would agree with us that Brillat‑Savarin* was quite wrong in denying himself the pleasure of a dish of potatoes. The famous French magistrate and gastronome knew nothing whatever about the true dietetic richness of the "truffel of the poor"** when he wrote in his contemplations on corpulence: "Oh my God, you'll exclaim... how barbaric the professor is... He hasn't got a kind word neither for the potato nor for the macaroni." Would you expect that from such a connaisseur?

It has been established that an evolution in the intake of food constituents is taking place all over Europe. Generally speaking, we are eating less bread, potatoes and legumes and more meat, fats and sugar. This change is a headache for the medical profession which is aware of an increase in tooth, decay, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Based on the nutritional needs of man, Professor J. Tremoli?s proposes six potato dishes a week; the Dutch Institute of Nutrition and Health advises that five to seven potatoes should be eaten a day.

Our first concern is calories. The idea that we must avoid the potato when we're on a diet is so deep‑rooted in our minds, that we don't even bother to consult the calorie tables which have been distri­buted far and wide in our overfed society. From these tables we could learn that a 100 g. of potatoes provide 84 calories and are thus comparable to a good number of fish and crustaceans (ray: 89 cal., shrimps: 96 cal.), to certain vegetables (salsifies: 76 cal., peas: 91 cal.) and to fruits (grape: 77 cal., banana: 94 cal): food which we always prefer when we want to compose light meals. Let's admit that we are wrong when we put the potato on a par with bread, rice, pastas and pulses which are nearly three and five times as rich in calories. Almost all of the potato's calories are supplied by carbohydrates made up of starch. Among its constituents, cellulosic fibres, roughage which facilitates intestinal transit, also figures.

What else does the potato hides under its earthy skin? Nothing less than that thing we swallow the moment we jump out of bed, in the form of fruit juice at breakfast so that we can begin our day full of vim and vigour; that thing which symbolizes the invulner­ability of our up‑to‑dateness: the so very fragile vitamin C! The quantity of vitamin C in a new potato is quite considerable: 2 5 mg. per 100 g. which is half of our daily vitamin C requirement.

The large family of B vitamins which has rid us of beriberi and which plays an important role in the transformation of carbohydrates and proteins is far more stable and is present in greater quantities in the "apple of the earth" than in the "apple in the air". The vitamin B1, B2, B6 contents per 100 g. of the potato are: 0.10, 0.04 and 0.20 mg., respectively.

Of the vitamin A, the so‑called "good for growth" vitamin, the tuber only bears trace elements which are obtained after boiling, and in end products.

What else does this round tuberous nightshade conceal under its plump shape? Numerous and diverse minerals: potassium (600 mg.), phosphorus (60 mg.), iron (0,5 mg). With respect to our needs it is singularly deficient in sodium and in calcium (10 mg). And finally, 70 to 80% of its weight is water.

You'll have to admit that that won't tip the scales!

* Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). French magistrate and author especially known for his book: ?La Physiologie du gout?. He was the first gastronome  to consider cooking as a high art.
** Nickname given to the potato by Victor Hugo