Do you want fries with that?

This question asked in most fast food restaurants is generally answered in the affirmative, and most of us love them.

In the United States, potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable crop and the fourth most consumed crop in the world, behind rice, wheat and corn. Fried potatoes, however, are not a health food. A study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate them twice a week saw an increased risk of death. The study examined potato intake in 4,400 people between the ages of 45 and 79. By the end of the eight year study, 236 people had died. Researchers found that those who ate fried potatoes — including french fries and hash browns — were more than twice as likely to have died.

Despite the health-related problem derived from the method of preparation, potatoes are a staple for 1.3 billion people and are nutritious. Phytonutrients in potatoes include carotenoids (Vitamin A), flavonoids (anti-inflammatory, antioxidants) and caffeic acid (antioxidant). Vitamin C is also found in potatoes; in fact, a medium-size potato contains about 45 percent of the recommended daily allowance.  All of these substances may prevent or delay some types of cell damage, according to the National Institutes of Health, and may help with digestion, heart health, blood pressure and even cancer prevention.

Potatoes may help lower blood pressure for several reasons, and the fiber found in potatoes could help lower cholesterol by binding with it in the blood. (Fiber is found primarily in the outer potato peel.)  In addition, potatoes are a good source of potassium, more than bananas. Potassium is a mineral that helps lower blood pressure — it acts to dilate blood vessels. Vitamin B6 in potatoes is critical in maintaining neurological health, as are manganese, phosphorus, niacin and pantothenic acid.

Overall, potatoes cooked the right way — without heaps of butter, bacon and sour cream — are good for you. The best way is baking or microwaving. Either method causes the lowest amount of nutrients to be lost. The next healthiest way to cook is through steaming, which causes less nutrient loss than boiling. However you cook the potato, try to eat the skin. It contains much of the nutrients and the majority of the fiber.

Fortunately potatoes are low in calories; a medium-size potato contains only about 110. The level of carbohydrates found in potatoes makes them easy to digest, and the fiber-filled skin can help keep us regulated.

All of the nutritional information about potatoes is favorable. However, while being fat-free, they do not contain all of the 20 essential amino acids and 30 vitamins and minerals and they contain little protein.

Potatoes are not root vegetables, they are actually part of the stem of the perennial Solanum tuberosum. This part of the plant is called a tuber, and it functions to provide food to the leafy part of the plant. There are thousands of potato varieties, but not all are commercially available. Idaho is the top potato-producing state, but they are grown in a number of other states as well.

The Inca in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes, growing them around 8000 B.C. to 5000 B.C. In 1536, Spanish conquistadors conquered Peru and carried potatoes back to Europe.

According to a recent article in Science, potato farmers are facing an uncertain future. Starting in Peru, where potatoes have been grown for thousands of years, climate change is becoming a problem. Drought and frost are striking more often. Rains come later, shortening the growing season. Warmer temperatures have allowed moths and weevils to encroach from lower elevations.

To find potatoes that can cope with those challenges, researchers and Peruvian farmers are testing the 4,350 locally cultivated varieties. In Peru and around the world, enhancing the potato has become a high priority. Unfortunately, creating a new potato variety is slow and difficult, even by the patient methods of plant breeders. The reason is that commercial varieties carry four copies of each chromosome, which forces breeders to create and test hundreds of thousands of seedlings to find just one with desired combination of traits.

To breed a better potato, it helps to have plenty of genetic raw material at hand. But the world's gene banks are not fully stocked with the richest source of valuable genes — the 107 potato species that grow in the wild. Habitat loss threatens many of those species. In a bid to preserve the wild diversity before it vanishes, collectors have made the biggest push ever, part of a $50 million program coordinated by the Crop Trust, a charity based in Germany.

The key to a robust potato may be waiting in the wild species that grow from southwestern North America through central and South America. Bringing some of the ancient diversity back into cultivation could be the answer to environmental changes to the wonderful but threatened potato.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.