We take many of our staple foods for granted, rarely giving a second thought to their origin and history. But where do they actually come from? The humble potato for example, would be designated a novel food if it were introduced on the European market today.
The potato is native to South America, where the Andean Indians have bred it for some 5000 years to eliminate bitterness and toxicity. Primitive varieties have been a staple crop there from at least AD 200. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the potato was confined to the high Andes from Colombia to North Argentina and to Chile. Exactly when and how it was introduced into Europe is open to debate, although it probably first arrived in Spain from Colombia or Peru circa 1565 and separately in England towards the end of the 16th century.
If the current EU legislation would have been applicable at that time, the potato would have been considered a "novel food" as it had never been eaten by the European consumer before.
The potato is now the world's most important vegetable crop. Its continuing popularity is based on its tolerance of diverse environmental conditions, allowing it to be cultivated all over the world. 90% of the world's production however now comes from the old world, mainly eastern Europe.
The potato is in the same botanical family as the tomato, eggplant, tobacco and belladonna and is characterised by the presence of underground root tubers, which are the edible part of the plant. There are thousands of varieties, all regarded as belonging to one species Solanum tuberosum. The tubers vary widely in size, shape, colour, keeping and cooking qualities. The skins can be white, yellow, brown, pink, red or purplish-black, and the flesh white, yellow, pink or purple. Their importance as the staple diet of some Europeans was illustrated by the Irish potato famine of 1844-45. Prior to this Ireland had one of the densest populations in Europe, with some eight million inhabitants. Death from starvation and emigration to America reduced this number to five million a few years later.
Potatoes have many uses as food and feed as well as in industry. They are nutritious, being an important source of vitamin C and potassium as well as starch. Eaten after boiling, baking or frying, they can also be processed into many different food products. Starch for example, is used as a thickening or filling agent in the production of foods such as desserts, soups and sauces. Potato starch is also used in the chemicals industry in the manufacturing of numerous compounds, in the paper industry and in the production of fuel alcohol.