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Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr
Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here's where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they're over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are "good" or "bad."

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: "Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades...”

So, that leaves us all with an important question: can potatoes actually be incorporated into a healthy meal?

Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says yes.

“It’s what you do with the spud. The spud itself – the way nature made it – is quite nutritious,” Blake explained. She adds that Americans need to do a better job in preparing the potato without having to deep fry them or eat them as chips. “They are a very inexpensive way to get good nutrients in our diet,” she said.

Vitamin C and potassium are two examples of nutrients found in potatoes, but are also found in many other food sources, including broccoli.

Over at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Alice H. Lichtenstein, a senior scientist for the school’s Nutrition Research Center on Aging, advises Americans to focus on two things when it comes to eating potatoes: their form and frequency.

If a person is going to have a moderately sized baked potato once a week, Lichtenstein doesn’t see a problem, as long as they aren’t adding sour cream and butter. If the same person is eating French fries or potato chips everyday as a snack – this probably isn’t such a good idea as these two forms of potatoes are generally high in sodium and calories, Lichtenstein added.

And, if you’re wondering if you can replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes, you may want to go easy on the portions. According to the Nutrition Source, while sweet potatoes are packed with more vitamin A and fiber, they have a similar glycemic load to white potatoes.

Lichtenstein adds, however, that sweet and white potatoes are completely different foods and shouldn’t be compared to another. She says that due to their taste and color, sweet potatoes can be more appealing to children than white potatoes.

But unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes and orange yams are included as part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program, also called WIC.

So, what’s the deal with potatoes being excluded from the WIC program?

In short: The decision was a result of a 2005 Institute of Medicine study that aimed to improve the quality of the diet of WIC participants. The committee members who evaluated the WIC food packages at the time chose to exclude white potatoes, stating Americans did not need encouragement to consume the maximum recommendation of one serving of potatoes a day.

NPR’s The Salt blog explains:

“Back in 2007, the USDA ruled that women and children enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, couldn't buy potatoes with the program's vouchers. Instead, the nearly 9 million WIC participants, who have to be poor and at risk of under- or malnutrition to enroll in the program, are given a monthly benefit ($10 for women and $6 for children) to buy any fruit or vegetable except white potatoes.

This month, industry groups persuaded some members of the House Appropriations Committee to introduce an amendment to change that — by permitting states the option to include potatoes in their WIC programs. The potato lobby is also hoping to change the final WIC rule on what foods are eligible for the WIC benefit. USDA is taking comments on it until June 29.”

“Whatever nutrients we are getting from potatoes, we’re getting plenty of those,” said Marlene B. Schwartz, PhD, the director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “The biggest problem is that people simply consume too much potatoes. And they do so by eating a lot of French fries,” Schwartz added, clarifying that her issue isn’t necessarily with the potatoes themselves but the many forms they take in our diet. She particularly calls out French fries.

“Potatoes are a victim of their own success,” Schwartz said, adding that she thinks the potato industry has probably benefited tremendously by having their products processed and sold frozen to restaurants and schools around the country.

Lichtenstein, however, says that it would be difficult to justify the complete elimination of potatoes. “Anytime we vilify one specific food or put undue focus on it, we sort of create a less than optimal food environment,” Lichtenstein said.

“It all goes back to preparation and frequency,” Lichtenstein restated in a phone interview. She adds that it all comes down to energy balance: “You can consume the highest quality diet but if you consume it in excess of energy needs, you’re not going to realize the benefits from it.”

What’s the final verdict when it comes to potatoes?

It's personal: The decision of whether or not we should include a spud on our dinner plates tonight – I believe – is up to us.

Alvin Tran studies nutrition as a doctor of science student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is on Twitter: @alvinhtran.

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