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The Potato: The World’s Most Versatile Food

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowMay 7, 2014
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There is no doubt about it, the potato has to be the most versatile food in the world.. How many other foods are eaten regularly for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Let’s learn about this cousin of the tomato, eggplant and pepper.

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I can't think of a food product used in so many different ways: mashed, fried, boiled, au gratin, potato chips, and even used to make vodka. Potatoes have proven invaluable in feeding the hungry of the world.

The potato originated in the Andes Mountains of South America in the area now known as Peru and Bolivar. They were introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century but it took more than 200 years for them to become a staple of European diets,

According to Agriculture Canada, the top five potato-producing countries are China, India, Russian Federation, Ukraine and the U.S. The U.S. Potato Board reports that world land devoted to growing potatoes measures approximately 74,000 square miles, an area larger than all of the New England states combined. Depending on the variety, growers can expect a yield of 30,000 to 40,000 pounds per acre.

Approximately 90% of all potatoes grown fall into three varieties: Russet, Round White and Round Red. Luther Burbank found a single mutation of a potato in his garden in 1872. He saved it and planted it the following year after which he derived 23 new plants, Out of these 23 plants, the Russet potato emerged as the world's most-planted potato.

Did you know that 85% of the potato plant is edible compared to only 50% of cereal grains such as wheat and oats? The majority of the plant is edible, even though the potato leaves are poisonous. The potato is actually an underground stem and emerging from each eye is a stem in search of sunlight. Once these initial stems reach the surface and begin to photosynthesize, new stems form underground which in turn become potatoes.
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In the past, potatoes were harvested by hand. With new global positioning system (GPS) technology, production has been increased by 10 to 15%. Prior to GPS, growers would steer their tractors by sight. This resulted in slight deviations from the rows, causing them to miss some of the mature potatoes. With the GPS doing the steering, very little is missed.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that the potato chip industry is one of the largest users of potatoes in the U.S.

According to The Market Research Company the chip industry had revenues of $8.8 billion in 2012, which equates to 1.5 billion pounds of potatoes per year. That's a lot of chips and dip! It is estimated that during the Super Bowl alone, 18 million pounds of chips are consumed in this country. A close second in potato consumption is the French fry. If you consider yourself an average American, it is estimated that you consume 29 pounds of French fries per year.   In 1953, the Ore-Ida Company came up with one of the greatest waste reduction procedures of all time. Prior to 1953 hundreds of pounds of leftover scraps of various potato products were discarded. Ore-Ida chopped up the leftover scraps, added some flour and other ingredients and poured the mixture into a mold. The Tater Tot® was born. Over 70 million pounds of these "leftovers" are consumed annually.

Do you know how to get 300 pounds of potatoes into a 50-pound bag? Have you ever wondered how they get all of the chips in a Pringle can so evenly matched? Image

The answer to both questions is dehydration. Depending on its size, a potato is approximately 75% water. Remove the water and the volume decreases significantly. In the case of Pringles, potatoes are dried and ground into potato starch. This starch is combined with other materials such as wheat and rice, water is added to create a paste, this paste is pressed through a mold, and then dried, the result is a perfectly shaped Pringle.

Dehydrated potatoes are what most of us know as instant potatoes; just add a little water and we have instant mashed potatoes. Dehydrated potatoes play an important role in feeding the hungry throughout the world. Potato starch is combined with other nutrients and ingredients such as rice and vitamins, to form a very nutritious food supplement to feed the hungry.Because of its light weight, one million servings of food can be shipped in a 40-foot cargo container. After it reaches its destination, water is added to form a healthy food supplement.

The next time you are preparing potatoes, think about how diverse this wonderful vegetable is. Could I have an extra serving of sour cream, please?

References:
The History Channel
Agriculture Canada
The Smithsonian
U.S. Potato Board
USDA
The Market Research Company


  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Variety cybercrone 0 2 May 12, 2014 1:28 PM
where to get ORGANIC potatoes... campsharyn 1 3 May 12, 2014 8:05 AM
Good article! meezersfive 1 6 May 7, 2014 6:38 AM
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