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2008: international year of the potato

As the International Year of the Potato draws to a close, Christiane Staiger takes a look at the history of this starchy South American tuber and examines its pharmaceutical career both as a medicinal substance and as an excipient

by Christiane Staiger

As the International Year of the Potato draws to a close, Christiane Staiger takes a look at the history of this starchy South American tuber and examines its pharmaceutical career both as a medicinal substance and as an excipient

See other Christmas miscellany articles


The potato is the tuber of Solanum tuberosum, a member of the large and diverse Solanaceae family. As a cultivated crop, its origin lies several thousand years ago in South America. It originated in the area of contemporary Peru and Bolivia, north of Lake Titicaca. The first archaeological evidence of potato cultivation is from about 5,000 years ago.

The people of ancient Peru developed several techniques to improve the production and storage of potatoes. The most important was freeze-drying. Archaeologists have found remains of a dehydrated potato product called chuño.

During cold nights, the potatoes were left on the ground to freeze. In the morning, they were trampled to remove the trapped moisture. After four or five days all the moisture had gone and the tubers were ready for storage.

The potato played an important part in the lives of the South American natives, both as an everyday food and as a cultural influence. The Quechua language records more than 1,000 words to describe potatoes and potato varieties.

Ancient artifacts show that the people of the Andean highlands used potatoes as a theme in their art and religion. They worshipped potato gods and performed potato rituals. The crop was also believed to have medicinal qualities. For example, it was rubbed on the skin of sick patients as a remedy.

The journey to Europe

Although many American crops were brought to Europe by Columbus and other explorers soon after the discovery of the New World in 1492, the potato did not arrive in Europe until about three decades later. This is because its home in Peru and the high Andes mountains was not explored until Francisco Pizarro reached the area in 1532.

Scientists from Birmingham University have found evidence that the introduction of the plant to Europe from South America was via the Canary Islands, and not, as previously assumed, directly into mainland Spain. They found records from November 1567 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria confirming that barrels of patatas, which is Spanish for common potatoes, were exported from Gran Canaria to Antwerp.

The bill of lading for goods mentions three medium-sized barrels containing potatoes, oranges and green lemons. A second record, from April 1574, refers to two barrels of potatoes that were shipped from Tenerife via Gran Canaria to Rouen in France.

Thus, the potato was clearly being grown in the Canary Islands by 1567. Taking into consideration that it would have needed some five years to bulk up production sufficiently to turn the potato into an export crop, it might well have been introduced by about 1562.

On the European mainland, the market archives of the Hospital de La Sangre in Seville, Spain, mentioned the plant in 1573 and 1576. These first records in continental Europe indicate that the potato was being grown in or around Seville by that time.

A problem for historians is to recognise whether references to potatoes in the literature relate to the familiar white potato, Solanum tuberosum, or to the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, which is a botanically different plant, being a member of the bindweed or morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.

But although the two species could have been confused, evidence suggests that the early Spanish authors clearly distinguished between the two potato types and that the Canarian and the Seville records do indeed refer to the Solanum potato.

Spreading through Europe

From Spain, the potato slowly spread to Italy and other European countries during the late 16th century. But it did not receive a warm welcome. The potato was regarded with suspicion, distaste and fear. It was primarily grown in botanical gardens as an exotic novelty, admired for its flowers but not considered fit for human consumption.

In many European countries, the potato carried a social stigma as the food of savages and peasants. In England, the tuber was so despised during the reign of George III, who ruled from 1760 to 1820, that it took years of botanical experiments before people conceded that potatoes might be acceptable — but even then, only as cattle feed.

Despite these suspicions, the potato gradually spread across Europe. By 1600, it had entered Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, Portugal and Ireland.

The first description of the potato in English appears in “The herball or generall historie of plantes” (1597) by John Gerard. Gerard mistakenly thought the white potato to be native to North America, calling it the “Virginian potato” to distinguish it from the red sweet potato.

He wrote: “Virginia potatoes hath many hollowe flexible branches trailing uppon the grounde … , the whole leafe resembling those of the Parsnep … whereon do grow very faire and pleasant flowers, made of a entirely whole leafe, which is folded or plaited in such strange sort, that it seemeth to be a flower made of sixe sundrie small leaves. … The whole flower is of a light purple colour.”

The potato made its way further around the world. In 1613, the British took the tuber back across the Atlantic to Bermuda. From there it was shipped (only later, in 1621) to Virginia, then one of Britain’s American colonies. Historical and genetic evidence suggests that the plant reached India not much later than Europe, taken there by either the British or the Portuguese.

Feeding people

In the mid-18th century, Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato’s potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but he faced the challenge of overcoming the people’s prejudice against the plant. The breakthrough in growing the crop in Prussia came with a royal degree in 1756 commanding farmers to cultivate the plant in their fields.

Another person remembered as a vocal promoter of the cultivation of the potato for human use was French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737–1813). While serving as a military pharmacist during the Seven Years’ War he was captured and, in prison in Prussia, was faced with eating only potatoes for two weeks.

After his return to France, where potatoes were used only as animal fodder, his prison experience made Parmentier propose the use of potatoes as a source of nourishment and breadmaking in 1772. To this day, the description “parmentier” means that dishes that contain mashed or boiled potatoes.

Today the potato is one of world’s most important food crops — so much so that the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.

Its mission was “to increase awareness of the importance of the potato as a food in developing nations, and promote research and development of potato-based systems as a means of contributing to achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

“Over the next two decades, the world’s population is expected to grow on average by more than 100 million people a year. More than 95 per cent of that increase will occur in the developing countries, where pressure on land and water is already intense.

“A key challenge facing the international community is, therefore, to ensure food security for present and future generations, while protecting the natural resource base on which we all depend. The potato will be an important part of efforts to meet those challenges.”

The year 2008 was also designated the National Year of the Potato in Peru.

International year of the potato 2008

The potato is an integral part of the global food system, being the world’s number one non-grain commodity, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Production reached 325 tonnes in 2007.

Because its prices are determined by local production costs, it can help low-income farmers and vulnerable consumers “ride out extreme events in world food supply and demand”. The potato is, therefore, a food of the future.

The aim of the UN’s international year of the potato was to raise awareness of the tuber’s importance as a staple food and to promote the development of sustainable potato-based systems, ensuring food security

Medicinal use

When first introduced into Europe, the potato was not only a novelty and sold for a high price, but also used as medicine. It was supposed to be an aphrodisiac and was considered useful both in curing impotence and as an ingredient in love philtres.

In 1710, William Salmon (1644–1713) praised potatoes highly, claiming they stopped “fluxes of the bowel” and could cure tuberculosis and rabies. He also promoted their aphrodisiac qualities, asserting that eating potatoes would “increase seed and provoke lust, causing fruitfulness in both sexes”.

In the literature it is also stated that Shakespeare refers to the aphrodisiac properties of potatoes twice — once in The merry wives of Windsor and once in Troilus and Cressida. It has been shown scientifically that Shakespeare was in fact referring to the sweet potato.

However, because sweet potatoes do not grow in the British Isles, it may well be that the common potato was used instead in those pre-Viagra times.

Raw potato water was recommended against gastric ulcers. This seems to make some sense because potatoes and potato water have alkaline pH values.

Potatoes were also recommended for earache. Sufferers were advised to put a little lump of hot potato in the ear. Another indication was sore throat, for which boiled, mashed potatoes should be applied wrapped in a stocking. Olive or camphorated oil could be added to the outside of the stocking, which was then wrapped around the throat.

For both earache and sore throat, the application of hot potato makes use of its good heat storage qualities, which may well have been of some help.

Other recommendations are more curious from a modern viewpoint. For headache one should apply a poultice of raw potatoes to the temples. Cramp could be prevented by putting a potato under the mattress. To cure warts a man needed to cut a potato into half, rub the warts with the cut surface and then bury the potato in his garden.

Carrying a potato in an apron pocket was seen as a preventive against rheumatism, or a cure for it, by some older women. Another suggestion without any evidence base was to put potato slices on broken bones.

During the 1920s, the potato was one of several plants examined as a possible source of insulin. As we know today, potatoes are not a vegetable source for insulin, but they are always mentioned as part of a proper diet for patients suffering from diabetes.

Potato diets were also recommended for an abundance of complaints, including colds, fevers, bronchial and digestive troubles, obstinate skin disease, chronic nettle rash and even influenza.

A career as an excipient

From the current pharmaceutical point of view, the potato tuber is not a magic active ingredient but it has, nevertheless, had a successful career in the pharmaceutical world as an excipient, because of its high starch content.

Starch is used mainly in oral solid dosage formulations, as a binder, diluent and disintegrant. For example, freshly prepared starch paste is used at a concentrations of 5–25 per cent in tablet granulations as a binder. Potato starch is also used in dry-filled capsule formulations for volume adjustment of the fill matrix.

Potato starch had a major role in the manufacture of wafer-capsules, an important dosage form in the 19th and 20th century. The starch cachet was one of many devices introduced into pharmacy and medicine by a French community pharmacist Stanislas Limousin (1831–87).

Their starch content also means that potatoes can be readily converted into alcohol, which is an abundantly used pharmaceutical excipient.

Oral vaccination

A modern use of the potato in medicine is in oral vaccination. In 2007, scientists showed that genetically modified potatoes could be an alternative to the syringe and needle. The idea is simply to eat the potato-based vaccine. Clinical trials are already on the way.

The researchers use genetically modified potatoes to carry the gene for the hepatitis ß surface antigen. The antigen is absorbed into the body where, as a foreign protein, it triggers an immune response.

In a trial involving 42 participants who had previously been inoculated with the traditional hepatitis ß vaccine, about 60 per cent showed signs of boosted immunity after eating bite-size pieces of raw genetically modified potatoes. If this type of vaccination works, the potato might have a bright future in medicine and pharmacy.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043703

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  • Pharmacy potato (Callie Jones)

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