PhotoMany diets urge followers to avoid potatoes, but a new study suggests the spud could actually be a health food.

Researchers writing in the  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry say two small helpings of purple potatoes (Purple Majesty) a day decreases blood pressure by about 4 percent without causing weight gain. That may not sound like much, but the researchers say the decrease is sufficient to potentially reduce the risk of several forms of heart disease.

Researcher Joe Vinson and colleagues point out that people in the U.S. eat more potatoes than any other vegetable. Purple-skinned potatoes, a boutique variety increasingly available in food stores, are noted for having high levels of healthful antioxidant compounds.

In Korea, purple potatoes are renowned in folk medicine as a way to lose weight. Vinson's team decided to investigate the effects of eating 6-8 small microwaved purple potatoes twice a day on 18 volunteers, most of whom were overweight with high blood pressure.

The volunteers ate potatoes or no potatoes for four weeks, and then switched to the opposite regimen for another four weeks while researchers monitored systolic and diastolic blood pressure, body weight and other health indicators.

Average diastolic blood pressure dropped by 4.3 percent and systolic pressure decreased by 3.5 percent. The majority of subjects took anti-hypertensive drugs and still had a reduction in blood pressure.

Nobody gained weight

As a bonus, none of the study participants gained weight. Vinson said that other studies have identified substances in potatoes with effects in the body similar to those of the well-known ACE-inhibitor medications, a mainstay for treating high blood pressure. But he suspects that the effects may be due to other substances in potatoes.

The scientists do not know yet whether ordinary white potatoes have the same beneficial effects. And chances are, French fries don't either.

Potatoe are part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Potatoes provide a wide range of important nutrients to the diet and are a particularly good source of complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and iron.  

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