Studies on athletic performance benefits of potatoes underway
Potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse providing an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium, even more than bananas. In fact, compared to many other popular fruits and vegetables, potatoes provide the best nutritional value per dollar in the produce aisle.
Even so, potatoes continue to be mischaracterized and misrepresented among vocal researchers and influencers who continue to uphold dated assumptions largely supported by observational research.
Unlike controlled trials, which investigate a specific cause (i.e., eating potatoes) and effect (i.e., heart health) usually over a shorter time period, observational studies investigate general associations between behaviors (food intake, exercise, lifestyle) and outcomes over a longer period. Cause-and-effect cannot be determined via observational evidence alone, but when contextualized with controlled trials, stronger links between potato consumption and health outcomes can be uncovered.
To help build a stronger foundation of scientific knowledge and challenge these misinformed potato health perceptions, the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE) was founded in 2011. APRE is a nonprofit organization comprised of U.S. and Canadian potato growers and processors dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the role white potatoes play in promoting the health of all people. While adhering to strict research integrity guidelines, found at apre.org/grant-program/research-integrity-guidelines/, APRE has invested more than $4.5 million in research grants, resulting in 30 studies and six publications to date. Findings from the six published studies are beginning to refute misinformed perspectives on potato health benefits held by some researchers and influencers.
New findings, applications
While most of the APRE-funded research is still being conducted, recent findings are beginning to show new applications and uses for potatoes, specifically for athletes looking for a whole food fuel source, and people trying to better control their blood sugar through diet.
It’s well accepted that optimal physical performance requires high-quality nutrient-dense carbohydrates and proteins. While there are many commercial, processed products available for athletes, APRE is investigating if potatoes, a whole food source of carbohydrates, can have the same performance benefits before, during, and after exercise as commercial products. There are currently six APRE-funded studies dedicated to this area underway, and one publication, found at www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00567.2019.
Results from that study showed that potatoes can be as effective as sports gels, and better than just consuming water, for endurance during a timed cycling trial. Future studies will investigate other components of potatoes (i.e., protein) and its impact on sports performance.
Another novel area of exploration focuses on a unique type of carbohydrate found in potatoes; a fiber-like compound called resistant starch (RS). While all potatoes contain some RS, heating then cooling potatoes before eating significantly increases the amount of RS present. As its name implies, RS is not fully digested in the gut and is associated with myriad benefits, including supporting a healthy gut microbiome, helping to manage body weight by keeping people fuller for longer, and supporting normal blood sugar control, to name a few.
Most studies use RS extracted from corn/maize and other grain sources like oats and beans; to date, few studies have looked, specifically, at the health potential of potato RS. To better identify the benefits of potatoes unique RS profile, APRE is currently funding four studies (three human, one animal), two of which have been published. Findings from these studies show that RS from potatoes could help curb adverse health issues associated with high-fat meals and improve the body’s response to blood sugar.
Beyond revealing potatoes as a source of quality carbohydrates that can have a positive impact on health outcomes, research findings can also identify new ways to use and market potatoes. Moreover, APRE’s research program can catalyze exploration around specific potato ingredients — like RS and potato carbohydrates and protein — for use in product formulations as a novel way to develop healthier, more nutritious foods and supplements.
We encourage the potato industry to use these studies in marketing and promotions, to get engaged and learn more. All studies mentioned in this article can be found at www.apre.org.
Mitch Kanter is the chief science officer for the Alliance for Potato Research and Education. He has a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.