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Potatoes in Cross Hairs of Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – AG INFORMATION NETWORK OF THE WEST – AGInfo Ag Information Network

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Potatoes in Cross Hairs of Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

Russell Nemetz

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s examination of which foods make up a healthy diet has the potato industry worried that the legendary spud will lose its status as a vegetable and thus a favored position in federal nutrition programs.

The issue involves the role of potatoes in Americans’ diets, specifically the amounts consumed and the way they are prepared.

The National Potato Council has been sounding the alarm over the committee’s work, resulting in articles across the country warning that potatoes may be reclassified as a grain.

“Should we reclassify a vegetable as something other than a vegetable?” Kam Quarles, NPC’s president and CEO, said in an interview in which he reiterated points he made in testimony to the committee in September, as well as in more recent comments.

In a Jan. 17 letter to the DGAC, Quarles said white potatoes’ “nutrient benefits align most closely with vegetables. Specifically, potatoes provide a source of essential nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, dietary fiber and magnesium, and iron, as well as important phytonutrients.”

He also said potatoes are a “springboard” vegetable. “Research shows that serving potatoes can encourage individuals to eat other vegetables when paired together on the plate,” he said. “Conversely, any decrease in recommendations for servings of potatoes could potentially decrease vegetable consumption further.”

In addition, “Potatoes are foundational to many cultural eating patterns in America and can help all Americans meet their nutrient recommendations,” Quarles said in the letter.

The DGAC says it’s not considering a change to the classification of potatoes. “It is not within the committee’s purview to make such a change,” DGAC spokesperson Joellen Leavelle said in an email. “That said, the committee is conducting an evidence review, which includes systematic reviews, food pattern modeling and data analysis.”

As part of that review, in looking at food pattern modeling, one of the hypothetical questions DGAC is considering is “what if someone follows a vegan, dairy-free, or low-carbohydrate diet or consumes more starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, and fewer grains … can the patterns still meet nutrient adequacy for each life stage?”

In addition, the committee’s Staple Carbohydrates protocol “outlines the approach it will use to answer questions related to grains and other staple carbohydrate foods,” Leavelle said. “The protocol includes the question: What are the implications for nutrient intakes when specific individual staple grains are emphasized; or when Grains are replaced with other staple carbohydrate foods (i.e., Starchy Vegetables; Beans, Peas, and Lentils; starchy Red and Orange vegetables)?”

“White potatoes are just one example of a staple carbohydrate food from the Starchy Vegetables subgroup,” Leavelle notes. “Other staple carbohydrate foods important to many cultural foodways include foods such as bread, rice, pasta, tortillas, cornmeal, white potatoes, cassava, pinto beans, black beans, chickpeas, split peas, lentils, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, among others.”

The Staple Carbohydrates protocol says “moderate evidence indicated that dietary patterns that were higher in nutrient-dense foods, including whole grains and legumes, were associated with favorable bone health outcomes and lower risk of colon and rectal cancer in adults; whereas, dietary patterns with French fries and potatoes were associated with a greater colon and rectal cancer risk.”

In addition, “limited evidence suggested” that during childhood, “dietary patterns with lower whole grains and higher refined grains, and fried potatoes were associated with higher fat-mass index and body mass index later in adolescence. Similarly, limited evidence suggested that dietary patterns in children and adolescents characterized by higher intakes of whole grains and legumes were associated with lower blood pressure and blood lipid levels later in life.”

In his Jan. 17 letter, Quarles cited a 2021 study that found “consumption of potatoes (baked or boiled, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, and potato chips) was associated with higher diet quality, nutrient intake, and adequacy, and therefore encouraging potato consumption may be an effective strategy for improving nutritional status.

“Potato consumers also had higher intake of energy, dietary fiber, protein, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, and total choline than non-consumers,” NPC said.

The debate is not new.

Back in 2006, the National Academy of Medicine recommended that potatoes not be included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. In 2011, Congress rejected USDA’s recommendation that school lunches contain no more than two servings of potatoes or starchy vegetables each week.

Then in 2015, the National Academy of Medicine changed its position, concluding that white potatoes should be included in WIC packages.

“The committee concluded that including white potatoes in the WIC food package would either have no impact or slightly improve the nutritional status of women and children,” the NAM panel said. “Including white potatoes would also probably help WIC participants consume the recommended intake for starchy vegetables.”

Jerold Mande, former deputy undersecretary for food safety and a senior adviser for nutrition at USDA who advocated for the removal of white potatoes from the WIC package, told Agri-Pulse that white potatoes are definitely a vegetable and have some nutritional benefits. However, since so many white potatoes are consumed as fries, “you don’t get much [nutritional] benefit.”

USDA figures show that “almost half of all potatoes going into food in the United States are now used to create frozen products — most of which are french fries.”

Of course, it also depends on how those fries are prepared, he says.

“There is a big difference between french fries that you might make yourself where you cut up a potato and cook it in oil, particularly a healthy oil, like olive oil. That’s a very different product than the ultra-processed french fries that you find in packaging and stores and many fast-food restaurants.”

His point is that Americans already eat enough potatoes.

“Potatoes can be part of a healthy diet, but there’s plenty of them in the diet,” he said. “The idea is to get increased exposure to fruits and vegetables that people maybe aren’t eating as many as they could and have higher nutritional value,” such as kale, broccoli, spinach, carrots, and others.

Source: Agri-Pulse

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