Resolving Potatoes' ‘Identity Crisis’

Published online: Mar 14, 2022 Articles Jennifer Strailey
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Source: The Packer

There’s an urgent need to set the record straight on the nutritional value of white tubers. And Potatoes USA, the marketing organization for the 2,000 potato farming families operating in the U.S., is prepared to do just that.

During last week’s Potatoes USA 2022 annual meeting at the Brown Palace in downtown Denver, attendees heard from experts on a range of topics, from the latest research and development (high-protein varieties in the works) to the need for science-based messaging on the role of potatoes in a healthful diet.

While the media often portrays white potatoes as a “bad carb,” high on the glycemic index and, in some instances, has advised consumers to avoid white potatoes altogether, Potatoes USA is focused on using science-based data to tell a different story.

In a March 9 potato nutrition panel discussion, Katie Lilley, chief operating officer of the Alexandria, Va.-based strategic communications firm Hillenby, urged the industry to take the “significant scientific information we have and use it.

“We need to create a body of evidence to push back on [misinterpreted] potato nutrition,” she continued. "Public opinion matters and the industry needs to promote the positives of potatoes as a nutrient-dense vegetable.”

Lilley was joined on stage by Potatoes USA Chief Marketing Officer John Toaspern; Beth Johnson, CEO and founder of Food Directions, a Maryland-based firm specializing in food policy; and Howard Goldstein, vice president of FoodMinds in Chicago.

“I believe potatoes are having a bit of an identity crisis right now,” said Goldstein. It comes back to the fact that potatoes aren’t always recognized as a nutrient-dense vegetable, he added.

Not only are potatoes often not recognized for inherent nutrients, medical and nutritional studies often incorrectly categorize potatoes alongside soda, sugar or candy, noted Goldstein. “That is a core issue,” he said, pointing to the significant challenges associated with potatoes appearing outside the vegetable category in health and nutrition studies.

On its website, FoodMinds, the food and nutrition affairs consultancy arm of strategic consulting firm Padilla, says its goal is to “harness science, public affairs, food values and communication to meet business and public health objectives.”

When asked by Toaspern what keeps him up at night, Goldstein further mentioned the false categorization of many potato products as “ultra-processed” — a category that has been broadly defined as products “that kill you.”

“We need to push back on this,” he said.

And when it comes to the nutritional value of a white versus sweet potato, Lilley wants to be sure that comparisons are based on factual information, so that negative white potato messaging doesn’t gain a “foothold.”

Johnson of Food Directions also shared her top-of-mind concerns for the potato industry, including potatoes in school lunch programs being thought of only in terms of French fries (even though baked and other preparations are part of programs), as well as the research studies out of Tufts and Harvard universities that advise consumers who are looking to lose weight should avoid potatoes.

Goldstein summed up the dynamic panel discussion with: “We need to tell the story of potatoes before someone tells it for us.”

Are high-protein potatoes the future?

During a Potatoes USA March 8 session at the annual meeting, David Douches, Ph.D., a professor at Michigan State University’s, charted a course for what may be the future of potatoes. He and fellow scientists have been researching how to increase the protein content in chip potatoes through a Potatoes USA-funded project.

The researchers have examined the high-protein potential of more than 300 different potato candidates, reported Douches. And while they need to “test more to learn more,” Douches said, “the potato is an amazing plant.” He is confident that the protein levels in chip potatoes can be improved and that protein source would be of a very high quality. “[Potatoes] could be one of the best plant-based proteins,” he said.