Potatoes and poisons

21 July, 2008

Idly thinking about gardening, and hoping to have the opportunity, if I can move to a suitable living situation, has led me to wonder about potatoes.

A friend surprised me a few years ago by opining that potatoes that were green, or had “eyes”, were poisonous and should be discarded. Well, if they were that bad I’d be dead several times over. Of course, I don’t actually eat the eyes, and generally peel potatoes that have gone green.

It turns out this is correct – potatoes that have aged, or been exposed to light, or temperature extremes, secrete neurotoxic Glycoalkaloids, and in particular solanine, in their skin and leaves. This is more dangerous to children than adults.

Googling reveals that some people eat raw potato in small amounts, or take its juice for (alternative) medicinal reasons. However, when potato starch is digested raw, it ferments in the bowel, and in significant quantities causes painful abdominal cramps and acute flatulence.

These factors in combination may explain why Europeans thought of potatoes as inedible for many years.

So it would be safest to peel and cook all potatoes before eating. If you are a gardener, you can try burying the peel eye-side up to grow your own potatoes! To do this, it’s best to peel with a knife, so there’s a good chunk of potato to sustain the new growth.

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