Matter of Taste: In defence of the potato

Much maligned before they were even linked to cancer, the humble spud offers us so much

Matter of Taste: In defence of the potato

Roasting potatoes produces acrylamide, a chemical that is carcinogenic [Flicker/deb]

So now they’re coming for our spuds? The scientific community has revealed that roast potatoes, those crunchy starch nuggets that look like buoys bobbing in a pool of gravy, could well be carcinogenic, putting the humble tuber right at the top of the list that starts with asbestos and ends with X-rays.

Acrylamide is the problem. It’s a chemical that forms in some starchy foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, baking, and, regrettably, roasting. It all happens when going for that crisp, when a chemical reaction between certain sugars and an amino acid in the potato forms acrylamide, a chemical that is also found in cigarette smoke.

It’s bad news for those who like their potatoes fried, baked, broiled, or roasted, and better news for those who like them boiled, steamed, or nuked in the microwave – though microwaves do also cause cancer, and some people really don’t like how much fluoride is in our water supply. The long and the short of it is that the only guaranteed way to avoid the potato-provoked potential of cancer is through tater tartar, though that serving suggestion may lead to gas and bloating at best, and hallucinations, loss of sensation, paralysis, fever, jaundice, dilated pupils, hypothermia, and death if you nibble on a sprouting green one.

From tuber to tumour

Cancer might well be the final straw for the wary diner, already put off the potato after decades of demonisation. We can’t entirely blame William Banting, the father of the low-carb diet whose 1863 booklet Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public revealed that avoiding starch and fats was his method of finally shedding the excess weight that he’d carried all his life. So popular this pamphlet became that for almost a century, “Are you banting?” was the popular way to ask someone if they were dieting, and to this day, the Swedish word banta is still the verb for struggling through a self-imposed regimen of leaner meals.

And while nuts and bananas have managed to shed their image as fattening foods, the potato was damned in 2011 when Harvard scientists said it topped the list of foods most likely to pile on the pounds, ranking higher than even soft drinks. All this despite the knowledge that an undressed and plain 200g baked potato contains half the daily amounts of vitamins B6 and C recommended for adults, with only 220 calories and zero grammes of fat. And just the tiniest smidge of potential cancer, hidden somewhere with all the fibre in the crispy skins.

Potatoes spread across the world

The cultivation of potatoes goes back as far as 5000bc, with selective breeding have helped turned what was once a group of misshapen and nobbly plants growing at high altitudes in South America into a billion-euro industry. The first Europeans to happen upon a potato did so in 1537 in what is now Colombia, believing them to be truffles. Brought back to Spain, they started to spread around the continent, making their way to Britain and Ireland in the 1590s.

Despite our reputation as potato eaters, though, the truth is that the Irish love of the vegetable goes hand in hand with religion – when they first arrived in the country, Irish Protestants in the north refused to eat them, because they had never been mention in the bible. Irish Catholics, equally wary, simply reconciled this problem by sprinkling their seeds with some holy water and planning them on Good Fridays.

In France, the home of fine dining, the pomme de terre troubled to find favour, finding an unlikely champion in Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. An army officer, Parmentier was held captive in Hamburg during the Seven Year War, where potatoes became a regular part of his diet. Upon release, he presented the tubers to Louis XVI, who became such a fan that he encouraged his new wife Marie Antoinette to wear potato flowers as garlands.

Hachis Parmentier, a French version of Shepherd's Pie that owes its name to the man who popularised potatoes in French cuisine [Pixabay]

From high society to the common man

But more important than charming the court was winning over the people, and that was done by cultivating hype; Parmentier set up a large potato plantation just outside of Paris, contained within trenches and manned by a team of guards. But the watchmen were ordered to only appear to be on the job, with Parmentier betting that the curious locals would sneak in, steal the crops and replant them in their own gardens. Potatoes have been popular all over France ever since, and parmentier has been added to the names of dishes containing them.

A comfort food, versatile and cheap, packed full of nutrition, the potato has earned its place at the table. Here’s hoping that the link to cancer is as bad as it gets. Just don’t let them get too crispy.

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