Have you ever been rummaging through your pantry for something to make dinner with, and found a potato with a white growth protruding from it?
Chances are, this has happened to everyone who has ever needed to cook with potatoes, and it can be an off-putting experience for some people. You may not know what to do with potatoes like these – do you have to throw them out or can you still eat them?
The white or green growths are known as potato eyes – the reason for this nomenclature is uncertain, but you can also call them buds if you prefer.
They start to appear on potatoes that have been kept in the same place for a period of time (usually at least a week). Here we will tell you what exactly these eyes are for, whether they are dangerous, and what you should do if you find eyes on your potatoes.
Why Do Eyes Form?
You’ll be relieved to know that potato eyes aren’t nature’s way of watching your every move from the inside of your own kitchen. Instead, they are simply sprouts that can evolve into stems for new plants to grow from.
Sprouting is a sign that your potato is ready to grow tubers, which you can then plant separately in the ground. These tubers will generally have 2-10 individual eyes on their surface.
Potatoes that have grown eyes are sometimes called ‘seed potatoes’, because they can be used as seeds to form more potato plants.
This characteristic that potatoes have evolved has helped ensure their longevity and the survival of the species.
Potatoes are very important to the majority of the world’s people, sitting behind only rice and wheat on the list of essential crops for human consumption.
We have already witnessed the possible consequences of a potato shortage, after the Great Famine in Ireland in the mid 1800s – around 1 million people died due to lack of potatoes.
That should be enough to convince anyone that potatoes are necessary to our survival, so it’s a good job they’re hardy and can reproduce easily.
How Do Eyes Progress?
To begin with, an eye will just be a subtle dent in the potato’s surface. If you feel a bump just underneath, this is where a sprout is about to grow. Once the first sprout comes through, it will only be very small – probably the size of a pen nib.
When you catch sprouts at this stage, you can scrub them off when rinsing the potatoes or scrape them away with a potato peeler.
The longer you leave the sprouts to develop, the bigger they will become, and the more will form on the skin. You may even notice secondary sprouts growing on the larger ones, and they will be more stubborn to remove than before.
Eyes can also alter the texture of the overall potato, making the skin rough and dry. The potato may appear dehydrated, as if someone has sucked all the moisture from it.
Potatoes in this condition aren’t usually fit to eat as they are past their best and won’t taste appealing. You should definitely throw out potatoes where the skin has started to turn green, as this can indicate that additional toxins are present.
If your potatoes are kept near onions or apples, they will start to sprout sooner due to the gases these foods emit. This is also the case if you place them in a warm, damp environment.
To prevent eyes as long as possible, keep your potatoes separate from other fresh fruits and vegetables, and keep them in a cool, dry place.
However, the only way to stop eyes growing altogether is to eat your potatoes quickly after purchasing them, as eyes can develop in any conditions.
Why Are They Called Eyes?
As stated above, we can’t be sure exactly why potato sprouts are called eyes, but the best guess is that it’s just because of their look.
The color and positioning of the sprouting parts makes them resemble eyes popping out of a face, and they often have a black dot on them like a pupil. Additionally, the leaf scars that also form by the eyes can be seen as ‘eyebrows’.
This all presumably stems from the tendency of the human brain to see faces in everyday items, or to anthropomorphize inanimate objects.
Are Potato Eyes Dangerous?
It is not dangerous to eat sprouted potatoes, as long as you don’t eat the actual eyes. It is best to cut them off just under the skin, but you can also just pull them off with your hands.
You shouldn’t eat the eyes because they contain high amounts of glycoalkaloids, which can be toxic if consumed in large doses. Potatoes usually have glycoalkaloid compounds in them, but when unsprouted these remain at low levels.
In this case, they can even be beneficial to your health, with potential effects such as lowering your cholesterol and providing natural antibiotic properties.
The levels of glycoalkaloids (specifically solanine and chaconine) are distributed evenly throughout the potato, which balances them out and keeps them manageable to ingest.
However, these are concentrated in certain parts of the plant; namely, the flowers, leaves, eyes and sprouts.
Obviously the first two aren’t an issue as they aren’t the edible parts anyway, but you should be careful with the other two since they grow on the part you actually eat.
Potential effects of consuming too many glycoalkaloids include fever, dangerously low blood pressure, and vomiting. In extreme cases, you can die from glycoalkaloid poisoning.
One exception to this is that pregnant women should altogether avoid eating any potatoes that have already sprouted. This is because, although the glycoalkaloids won’t harm adults in small quantities, they can lead to birth defects in unborn babies.
It is a risk that isn’t worth taking, so either throw out any sprouted potatoes you find if you are pregnant, or leave them for other people to deal with accordingly.
The spots and resulting growths that appear on potatoes after around a week of storing them are potentially toxic, but they won’t harm you as long as you don’t eat them.
You can cut them off and then eat the potato as normal, which is good to know so that you don’t end up creating more waste than necessary.
However, stay clear of any potatoes that have already got eyes if you’re pregnant, as you don’t want to risk harming your child even if you yourself can tolerate the side-effects.
Sometimes, potatoes will have sprouted too much to be edible – use your common sense here, and you can enjoy your potatoes without worrying.
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