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November 2019

In 2016 I wrote a column in which I tried to answer questions about how healthy potatoes were as a staple food. In this column the effect on high blood sugar levels and a high glycemic index was seen as a negative effect of potato consumption especially when eaten as mashed potatoes. There was no problem when potato was eaten as part of a meal with enough other structural ingredients.

I had to think about this column when a lot of noise was made in the popular press about a scientific article published last august. In this article the use of mashed potatoes as a sport food for endurance athletes was studied. The authors (Salvador et al., 2019) compared twelve serious cyclists—all of whom had to pass a threshold of physical fitness and training—who had three refueling options during a 120-minute cycling challenge. They could either have plain water, a commercially available sports gel, or a potato puree. The result of this research was that the group on water performed less, but that the group on mashed potatoes showed the same performance as the group on energy gels. In the popular press this led to headlines, stating that mashed potatoes could replace gels as a sporting food.

If this study was true it may be changing the view on sporting foods completely. Every endurance athlete I know swears by pasta meals before his sporting because of the carbohydrate content. In the future they can switch to mashed potatoes, easy to eat and you can bulk more carbohydrates that way. Mashed potatoes are much cheaper than high performance carbon hydrate gels and will make healthy sport foods affordable to a larger part of the world population. Next year in Japan the Olympics could be renamed PotatOlympics and McDonalds may serve mashed potatoes instead of French fries leading to new world records on the marathon and faster cycling.

But is this study really a scientific breakthrough? It was already known that potatoes could be a good and healthy source of carbs which contains more vitamins and minerals than other carb sources. When you look at the study as a scientist you may conclude the research method could be improved, the sample size of twelve athletes is very low. But this is not the biggest problem with the results of this study. The athletes that used mashed potatoes had tot eat about four times the amount compared to the energy gels to have the same carbon intake. This may be a fun experiment, but it is not very practical to eat and digest these amounts of potato puree when you are trying to win a marathon. The researchers also reported gastrointestinal distress and bloating in the potato group, not very practical either.

Basically, this study confirmed what my grandmother already knew, if you have to work hard on the farm you have eat a good meal with a basis of potatoes. To make it a sporting food some improvements have to be made.●

Dr. Ir. Peter Kooman
Professor Potato supply chain and sector innovation
CAH Vilentum University of Applied Sciences


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