What Is Quality?

Published online: Jan 27, 2022 Articles John Toaspern, Chief Marketing Officer, Potatoes USA
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This column appears in the January 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

It should come as no surprise that Americans still have a “carbohydrate confusion” problem. This confusion plays out on a consumer level with the popularity of such diets as keto and paleo and the general desire to cut carbs. These confusions often stem from communications around flawed research and an over-generalization of study findings that often keeps potatoes in the crosshairs of carbohydrate mischaracterizations. Specifically:

Potatoes are not usually grouped with vegetables in observational studies. Rather, they are often put into groups with refined sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meat, etc.

There is an over-reliance on glycemic index (GI) as a marker for carbohydrate quality. Yet newer research calls into question GI’s utility and validity.

Potatoes USA is involved in efforts to change this, starting with the funding of the Alliance for Potato Research & Education (APRE). More recently, Potatoes USA has taken a proactive approach to push back on the flawed science and misinterpretation of findings through two specific initiatives:

  • Advancing science-based communications that reinforce the role of potatoes as a nutrient-dense vegetable; and
  • Supporting efforts that take a novel approach to define quality carbohydrate-containing foods.

Building Proof to Support Positive Potato Messages

For the past five years, APRE has been funding potato nutrition studies to react to potato mischaracterizations and identify new reasons to believe in the health benefits of eating potatoes. APRE is building a scientific foundation that identifies how potato consumption can help support healthy lifestyles and reduce disease risk. APRE has invested more than $4.5 million in research, resulting in 40 funded studies and 17 publications to date. Collectively, this research is important for the entire industry, as it helps to solidify potatoes as a nutrient-dense vegetable and quality carbohydrate-containing food.

Rigor and Integrity in Nutrition Science

The Potatoes USA team is proactively engaging with the scientific community to ensure that nutrition research is being fairly and consistently analyzed. One forthcoming Potatoes USA-funded study is being led by David Allison at Indiana UniversityBloomington, co-chair of the National Academies of Science’s Engineering and Medicine Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity and Trust. Through this instrumental research, to be concluded in 2022, Allison will take a published study that grouped potatoes in the “less healthy” category (resulting in findings that linked potato consumption to increased risk for heart disease and diabetes), and reclassify potatoes into the “more healthy” category, then rerun the data. This allows two scenarios to be investigated: a “healthy” pattern with potatoes, and a “less healthy” pattern without potatoes.

‘Carbohydrate Ag World’ Supports Efforts for a Definition

To prompt new thinking surrounding carbohydrate quality, Potatoes USA spearheaded the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition (QCC). The QCC is made up of organizations representing all carbohydrate-containing foods across the food supply—including fruits and vegetables, beans, pulses, lentils and peas, pasta, grains, and rice—who have come together to support a path forward that better defines “quality carbohydrate-containing foods.”

The actual science behind the algorithm development (which will be used to define quality carbohydrate-containing foods) is being led by an independent Scientific Advisory Council (SAC), which includes six world-renowned health and nutrition scientists. During the initial conversations, the SAC agreed that whatever approach is taken, GI needs to be omitted as a marker for carbohydrate quality. The SAC plans to complete three manuscripts to support these efforts:

  • Manuscript 1 sets the stage for this undertaking and provides rationale around omitting GI from the discussion. This is now published in Nutrients.
  • Manuscript 2 will reveal the approach to and components of the algorithm. This will be completed and submitted for publication this year.
  • Manuscript 3 will bring the algorithm to life by showing how it can be applied to various dietary patterns and across cultures. The estimated publication timing is in the second quarter of 2022.

What’s Next? How Can the Industry Support?

These collective efforts will be used to inform dietary guidance and educate nutrition thought leaders. This work is important, now more than ever, as there is a prevailing narrative among leading vocal institutions like Harvard to reduce intakes of high-GI foods like potatoes. Industry members are encouraged to get involved and help spread the word about the APRE research program, potato nutrition findings, and the QCC/SAC publications.

To stay up to date on the latest research and nutrition news, check out www.apre.org and www.potatoesusa.com.