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Five Things You Never Knew About Potatoes
Often overlooked as part of our diet, potatoes are high in fibre and protein, as well as vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and B complex, iron and potassium. The tuber, which once reigned supreme on our dinner plates, seems to have lost its privileged status, that is, until recently. The potato has regained popularity and chefs are including it more and more in their dishes. Even I, who am not overly fond of the potato, added it to several meals in the past year and was very surprised by its versatility. McCain, a Canadian industry leader celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, offered me a unique year-long experience: follow the potato from plough to plate. I will have the opportunity to visit farms during the planting and harvest seasons, take pictures and share the story of the potato with you. Meanwhile, here are five fascinating facts about this tuber you may not be aware of.
Potatoes have eyes!
Have you ever noticed the little holes on potatoes from which the sprouts grow? Sometimes, we forget about a bag of potatoes for a while. When we open the bag, we discover sprouts so big, it's almost frightening! When the buds (called "auxiliary buds" or eyes) are exposed to heat and humidity, they begin to swell, resulting in sprouts. These "eyes" are extremely important because they allow new plants to be grown using pieces of the potato, which produces a genetically identical plant. This ensures that our potatoes have the same characteristics and are similar from one year to the next. You can even do it at home! The number of eyes and their distribution over the potato are distinctive for each variety.
100% of the potato is used!
Nothing goes to waste when you grow potatoes, and we like it that way! In fact, the food industry uses the entire potato, even those with defects – the ugly looking ones. The flesh is used to prepare food products like mashed potatoes, chips, fries, breakfast potatoes, etc. The peels are used to feed livestock. The least attractive potatoes may be used to make prepared meals and mashed potatoes, or for next season's plants. They can even be used to make starch! Potato starch is made by grinding whole, precooked tubers. The food industry often uses this gluten-free flour as a binder to thicken sauces and soups. And all the leftovers that we assumed were thrown out are put to another use as you will see in fact #5!
Potatoes can get sunburn!
Now, that's a surprising fact! While we turn red when we are exposed to the sun, potatoes turn green. This is no secret: potatoes grow in the ground, but, some occasionally protrude from the earth because of the cracks between the rows in the fields. The exposed part of the potato will get a sunburn! This phenomenon also occurs when they are not stored properly. The potato turns green because it produces chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that intercepts light during photosynthesis (the bioenergetic process that enables plants to synthesize oxygen using sunlight). This pigment, which is the reason why plants are green, does not act the same way in each species. The chlorophyll in the potato contributes to a concentration of solanine. The potato then becomes unfit for consumption, even toxic, and can cause vomiting, headaches and diarrhea. Simply cut off the green area to remedy the situation and use the rest of the potato.
The heart of the potato is extremely important.
It is important to know that a potato is made up of approximately 80% water and 20% solid matter (mainly carbohydrates in the form of sugars and starch). These carbohydrates are concentrated in the core of the potato, called the medulla. This primary storage area stores the energy surplus produced by the plant. Over time, as the medulla gets bigger, the potato grows in size. As Eric Ritchie, Agriculture Manager at McCain explained to me, the medulla will spread in order to nourish each eye. When you cut a potato down the middle, you can see the medulla, like a slightly darker line down the middle of the tuber. The medulla spreads all over, like tentacles, creating a veritable network of nourishment. It carries the solids (carbohydrates) throughout the flesh distributing the carbohydrates evenly throughout the potato.
Potato and clean energy?
Good news for the environment: harvest and food processing residues from the potato industry are used for bioproducts, including biogas. Biogas generally contains 50-60% methane and 35-40% carbon dioxide which can be used on-site to supply energy to the factory. To lower their energy usage, McCain acquired a methanation unit to process all the potato by-products (peels, grey starch, purée waste, non-retained fries, etc.). An excellent environmental initiative, in my opinion.
*I was paid a fee as part of a partnership with McCain. The views expressed are solely my own and not those of the company.