Storing potatoes for quality and food safety

Proper potato storage is essential to your family's health this winter.

As summer is coming to a close, those with their own gardens or others purchasing produce at the last few farmer’s markets of the season will want to make it last through the winter. Whatever the situation, it is important to understand the proper methods of storing produce for safety and quality. One vegetable almost everyone stores regularly is potatoes. Often we stash them under a counter in the kitchen and forget about them, but did you know that potatoes, if not stored properly, can actually be dangerous or even deadly?

Potatoes, like tomatoes and eggplant, are members of the nightshade family, which contain the toxin solanine. While these plants always contain some amount of solanine, the toxin increases in abundance when potatoes are exposed to light. That is why they should be stored in complete darkness. Exposure to light causes the skin, and flesh just under the skin of the potato, to turn green. While the green itself is harmless chrorophyll, the green color is an indicator of the presence of solanine.

So what? Grocery stores sell green potatoes all the time. Well, if enough solanine is eaten, the toxin can cause vomiting, diahrrea, headaches, paralysis of the central nervous system, coma, and in rare cases, death. How much is too much? This depends on the ratio of body weight to toxin ingested, and each person’s individual tolerance to alkaloid toxins. For a small child, it may only take a small amount, whereas an adult may have to ingest several green potatoes to feel the effects. The best way to avoid solanine poisoning is to avoid eating green potatoes.

It is not only important to keep potatoes out of the light for long term storage, but those stored under the counter, in a basement or root cellar that have started to grow eyes and become mushy and rotten can be dangerous also. Rotting potatoes give off a noxious solanine gas that can make a person unconscious if they’ve inhaled enough. There have even been cases of people dying in their root cellars due to unbeknownst rotting potatoes.

While these types of poisonings are rare in the U.S., it is still important to properly store potatoes at all times of the year, no matter how many you have. Keep them in a cool, dark place, and avoid exposure to light during transport. If you find or buy green potatoes, throw them out. While removing the green and cooking them removes some of the solanine, it may not be enough to prevent illness. Also avoid eating potatoes that are past their prime, have eyes growing on them, or show any signs of decay. If you store potatoes for any amount of time, Michigan State University Extension recommends checking them regularly for signs of mold, decay or eyes and remove any that display those traits. If there are a bunch of potatoes that have gone bad, make sure to properly ventilate the area before working to remove the bad potatoes.

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