Food & fluids

Potatoes – they’re maybe healthier than you think 

Potatoes often get bad press, accused of being- too starchy, too fattening, too boring ..but is this fair?

During last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns, the attention of many turned to home. Home grown; home cooked meals; getting Home and protecting our national resources. Issues such as sustainability, reducing waste, saving money and adopting a more plant-based diet all now seem more important than they were 5-10 years ago.

So maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at how eating potatoes nationally could help us to better health and economic growth.

Potatoes play an important role in the food security of developing countries with 50% of the worlds food energy needs now being supplied by potato, rice, wheat and maize. Global consumption of potatoes is estimated to be around 35kg/capita/year in 2013 with large regional differences.1

Potatoes are important in New Zealand too. In 2019 the potato industry in NZ was valued at >NZ$1 billion/annum. The main growing areas are Canterbury and Pukekohe and there are 172 growers nation-wide feeding our domestic and expanding export markets. New Zealand is developing the seed potato export market and also exports fresh produce to the Pacific Islands and frozen potatoes to Australia, Japan, French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea.2

In their fight against world hunger, the World Health Organization promote potatoes because of their high nutrient value, they are cheap and easy to grow and are space efficient. Potatoes tick a lot of boxes.

Potatoes are highly nutritious

Potatoes are a source of energy and protein plus Vitamin B1 (thiamin), B2 (Riboflavin) B6 (Pyridoxine) for our nerves, Vitamin C and iron for oxygenation of our blood and potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium for bone and muscle health. 3

Potatoes are low in calories.

Potatoes are often considered fattening because they are so filling and yet compared to other sources of starch in the diet they fare very well.

A medium sized (100g) unpeeled potato contains 67kcals/ 282kJ compared to the same amount of brown rice 142kcal /594kJ or brown pasta 138kcal/579kJ. 4

Potatoes are important for gut health.

Potatoes are an important source of carbohydrate and are gluten free.
Although they can’t be eaten raw, when potatoes are cooked and then cooled, they develop resistance starch (RS) which aids the growth of healthy bacteria in our gut important for building our immune system.

RS also helps to regulate blood glucose levels and digestion rates.
Potatoes have a moderate to high Glycaemic index (GI) 61-100 depending on the variety and method of cooking. While a GI <55 is preferable, if potatoes are cooked and then cooled, they will digest at a slower rate which will have a lower glycaemic impact per weight. So do try them e.g. in a potato salad with a vinaigrette dressing. 5

Potatoes are very filling

Unpeeled potatoes are a good source of dietary fibre, important for bowel regularity and increasing the feeling of fullness (i.e satiety).

When compared to pasta and rice, potato has a Satiety Index of 323% compared to brown rice 132% and brown pasta 188% for the same number of kilocalories.6

How to keep potatoes healthy

Avoid adding fat.

If you are keen to keep fit and healthy then choose your cooking method carefully when preparing potato dishes.

Potato 100g Fat Energy
  (g) kcal/kJ
Boiled/baked potato 0 67/282
Mashed with milk + margarine 4 97/409
Roast potato in oil 7 163/686
Wedges, home oven baked 6 190/797
Crinkle cut fries 11.8 240/1005
Fries from takeaway 17.4 325/1361
Crisps 34 536/2245

the thinner the potato slice, the greater the surface area to absorb fat. So, potato wedges are better than shoestring fries or crisps. Also note crinkle cutting chips increases the surface area of the chip trapping more of the fat and calories. 4

Skip the added salt

The sodium level of 100g potato is only 3mg but this increases to 152mg when a sprinkle of table salt is added. Try adding herbs and spices instead.

Watch the toppings you add to potato

 A plain potato has no fat but start adding toppings and things change quickly. For better health, if adding fat choose those higher in polyunsaturated fat. 4

Boiled potato (100g) Energy Saturated Polyunsaturated
Plus 1 Tbsp kcal/kJ Fat (g) Fat (g)
Tasty cheese 134/564 4.2 0.29
Sour cream 132/511 4.5 0.1
Vinaigrette 200/841 1.9 4.1
Butter 193/810 10.2 0.43
Margarine 124/522 1.7 3.2

Cooking methods matter too

Know your ‘tatties’

We’ve probably all experienced the disappointment when making a potato salad of picking a floury, mushy potato by accident when a waxy, smooth one that retained the potato cube shape would have been much better.

So, when buying potatoes think carefully about what you want to use them for.

  • Waxy/smooth

These are best for boiling, salads and casseroles. They hold their shape well during cooking because they have a high- water content and are low in starch with a dense texture. They also have soft skins that can be rubbed off with the hand.

Examples include: New potatoes, Perlas, Charlotte, Jersey Royal and Nadine.

  • Floury/ fluffy

These are ideal for baking, roasting, mashing and for making chips/wedges
They have a low water content and are high in starch with a dry, delicate texture. These qualities mean that the potato will absorb moisture and flavour when cooking and will easily break up during cooking.

Examples include: Agria, King Edward, Ilam Hardy as well as red skinned varieties such as Red Rascal and Desiree

  • Not too fluffy or too waxy a good all-rounder

If you prefer a potato that you can use for most things including boiling and roasting, then choose one that has a moderate amount of starch.

Examples include: Rua, Moonlight, Vavaldi Gold and Desiree.7

Bake rather than fry

Try making your own oven cooked chips without deep frying by simply placing fresh potato slices or wedges on baking paper, spraying with oil and baking for 15-20 minutes, stirring them around regularly, until evenly cooked and golden brown.

Safety notes

  • While leaving the skins on potatoes adds fibre and helps to reduce the leaching out of nutrients when they are in water, it is really important to scrub potatoes well to remove any dirt which may contain harmful bacteria.
  • Discard green or sprouted potatoes (and do not eat the leaves or flowers of potatoes) as these can contain glycoalkaloid compounds which can be toxic if consumed in excess and may lead to vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever and headache.

Potatoes have a multitude of uses

Young children, the sick and the elderly

If chewing is a problem, then mashed potatoes are soft and easy to swallow. If you are trying to help improve the diet of a reluctant feeder then adding grated cheese or tinned fish is a good way to also bump up their protein intake. (If using tinned fish then do mash up those soft tinned fish bones as they are a good source of calcium too).

School children

Mashed potato combined with fish; chickpeas or green peas; or grated cheese can be shaped into potato cakes, fingers or croquettes, coated with egg and breadcrumbs and either pan fried, baked or grilled as a vegetarian or pescatarian meal.

Older children

Teach children how to cook potatoes over the holidays and before they go flatting as a cheap survival skill. Show them It’s easy to make potato salad and prepare potatoes in a variety of ways boiled, baked, mashed and roasted and how to make oven baked wedges.

Endurance athletes

Athletes involved in cycling, long-distance running or endurance events often like to take whole boiled potatoes with them as a carbohydrate snack during long events.

Family meals

If you cook more large potatoes in their skins than you need then turn these into stuffed baked potatoes for tomorrow night’s dinner. Simply scoop out the inside of the potato into a bowl, mash this part of the potato with a dash of trim milk, add some chopped spring onion, grated cheese, fish or corn or baked beans, then pile this mixture back into the potato casing and bake at 180 deg C for 10-15minutes until the potato is heated through. This is a great way to use up leftovers and if served with your favourite salad makes a super cheap and filling meal .

Looking for potato recipes?

Check out Potatoes NZ recipe section where you will find Niki and Nathan’s Wasabi Surprise salad (pictured) and also remember our own Healthy Recipes sections for salad and vegetarian ideas

How much should you eat?

While eating potatoes are a healthy choice, how much you should eat at anyone time will depend on your age, current weight and activity levels so follow the national food guidelines and if needing extra help contact your local dietitian.

1.Wijesinha-Bettoni R. The contribution of potato to global food security, nutrition and healthy eating. Journal of Potato Research January 2019 96 (2)
2.Potatoes NZ: Potatoes worth NZ$1 billion to NZ economy Potato nutrition
4.FoodWorks 10 Professional, v10.0. Brisbane: Xyris Pty Ltd, 2019
5. Potatoes NZ: Glycaemic index v’s Glycaemic impact
6.The Fullness Factor
7.Wilcox. Potato guide and varieties

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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