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Glycoalkaloids are secondary plant metabolites that serve as natural defenses against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and insects (Friedman 2004). They can be toxic for humans when present in high concentrations, and can impart a bitter taste to potatoes. However, glycoalkaloids and hydrolysis products without the carbohydrate side chain (aglycones) also have beneficial effects that include: lowering of cholesterol (Friedman et al. 2003) and inhibition of the growing of cancer cells in culture as well as tumor growth in vivo (Friedman 2015).

Although there are many glycoalkaloids, α-chaconine and α-solanine make up 95% of the total glycoalkaloids present (Friedman et al. 1997); α-solanine is found in greater concentrations than α-chaconine, and α-solanine has only half as much specific toxic activity as a α-chaconine (Lachman et al. 2001).

Experiments with human taste panels revealed potato varieties with glycoalkaloid levels exceeding 14 mg/100 g FW tasted bitter (Friedman 2006). Those in excess of 22 mg/100 g FW also induced mild to severe burning sensations in the mouths and throats of panel members.

Glycoalkaloid levels vary greatly in different potato varieties and may be influenced by factors such as light, mechanical injury, and storage. They are also influenced by stress such as heat and drought during production. This raises concern for maintaining the quality of potatoes under climate change (Andre et al. 2009), and suggests increased attention may be needed to glycoalkaloid concentrations of potato varieties bred for or grown in warm environments.

Glycoalkaloid concentration of raw potatoes ranges from 0.7 to 18.7 mg/100 g FW (Friedman et al. 2003). Peeling significantly reduced the glycoalkaloid levels in the tubers: solanine to 43.6% and chaconine to 31% (Lachman et al. 2013). Cooking also significantly reduced the levels of glycoalkaloids (Tajner-Czopek et al. 2008), with boiling reducing the levels of glycoalkaloids more than baking and microwaving (Lachman et al. 2013).

Glycoalkaloid content in potato tubers should not exceed 20 mg/100 g FW, because this level is dangerous for human health (Ruprich et al. 2009). The toxicity of glycoalkaloids at appropriate high levels may be due to adverse effects such as anticholinesterase activity on the central nervous system and to disruption of cell membranes adversely affecting the digestive system and general body metabolism (Friedman et al. 2003). The toxicity of glycoalkaloids is associated with the synergistic interaction between two main components of glycoalkaloids: α-solanine and α-chaconine.

However, glycoalkaloids also have anti-carcinogenic properties. Exposure of cancer cells to glycoalkaloids produced potatoes (α-chaconine and α-solanine) or their hydrolysis products (mono-, di-, and trisaccharide derivatives and the aglycones solasodine, solanidine, and tomatidine) inhibits the growth of the tumor cells in culture as well as in vivo tumor growth (Friedman 2015). On the basis of the anti-carcinogenic properties of these potato components, it is conceivable that the levels typically noted in commercial potatoes might help to protect against multiple cancers. Epidemiological studies, however, are needed to substantiate this possibility.