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Should potatoes be classified as vegetables? – The Washington Post

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Americans love potatoes. In the United States, it consistently ranks as the country’s most popular vegetable, and nearly 50 pounds of potatoes were consumed per person in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — accounting for far more space on dinner plates than its runner-up, tomatoes.

But just as tomatoes are botanically considered a fruit, should potatoes really be considered a vegetable?

That’s the surprisingly polarizing question under review by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, as part of its mission to assess the latest research and issue new health recommendations to the government every five years, with the next edition set for 2025. While most nutrition experts and botanists say that potatoes are a vegetable, a years-long debate over whether they should be considered a grain or part of another food group has raged on, often in the name of public health — and especially in the United States, where more than 40 percent of people age 20 or older are considered obese.

“At some point, we are going to have to come to grips with how sick we are,” said Jerold Mande, chief executive of the nonprofit Nourish Science and an adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard University. “It’s more so ultra-processed food that’s the problem rather than potatoes, but it depends on what the potatoes are made into and how they’re made.”

Potatoes can be a healthy source of carbohydrates. They contain vitamins C and B6, as well as important minerals such as potassium, magnesium and iron. But the vast majority of potatoes produced in the United States are sold in processed forms, according to the USDA, and nearly half the crop is made into frozen products — mostly french fries.

The World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recommend about 14 ounces of fruits and vegetables per day to prevent nutrition-related chronic diseases, excluding potatoes or other starchy tubers.

Mande, who used to work at the USDA, says potatoes are a vegetable. But he still supported efforts during the Obama administration to keep white potatoes off the list of vegetables that can be paid for via WIC, a government-funded voucher program for women, infants and children in need of supplemental nutrition. That’s because “there’s no shortage of potatoes in people’s diets,” he said. “In fact, there’s an excess.”

Much like a baked potato, the political history of the American spud is loaded. In 2006, the National Academy of Medicine backed the assertion that white potatoes should not be a part of the WIC program, but members of Congress — including those from potato-growing states — railed against the decision. Five years later, Congress voted to thwart the USDA’s recommendation that federally subsidized school lunches include only two servings of potatoes or starchy vegetables a week.

In 2013, the National WIC Association accused Congress and the potato industry of “attempting to circumvent the scientific review process,” warning that this opened the door for potentially unhealthy foods “to be forced into the WIC food package.” By 2015, the National Academy of Medicine had reversed its stance on the potato, recommending its inclusion in the WIC program and stating that mothers and children needed more of all vegetables, including the starchy kind. Potatoes can be bought with WIC vouchers as long as they don’t have added sugars, fats or oils.

“Why didn’t it get the support it needed? Because the food industry and their allies are politically powerful‚” Mande said. “No one was banning potatoes. We were just saying, ‘Look, if you’re going to give people more money for extra vegetables, it shouldn’t be potatoes.’”

Kam Quarles, chief executive of the National Potato Council, an advocacy group for industry farmers, called past efforts to limit potatoes in federal nutrition programs “highly politicized” and “in opposition to the science surrounding the issue.” He said categorizing potatoes as anything other than a vegetable would burden school districts with higher school lunch costs due to food group requirements, and “would also likely alter the availability of nutrient-rich potatoes in programs like WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Meals on Wheels.”

“This change would have a wide impact across federal feeding programs,” he wrote in an email. “School districts and nutritional programs rely upon the flexibility of potatoes and their relatively low cost compared to other items in assembling meals for food-insecure Americans,” he added.

The Advisory Committee is “considering changes to food groups” and has discussed the potential “interchangeability of starchy vegetables and grains,” according to testimony from the National Potato Council in September. During the testimony, Quarles argued that “starchy vegetables and grains are two vastly different food groups that play distinctly different roles in contributing nutrients to the diet.”

The USDA was not immediately reachable for comment.

They thought they unearthed the world’s largest potato. It turned out not to be a potato at all.

Katherine Balantekin, a dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Buffalo’s Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, agreed that Americans need to be eating a wider variety of vegetables and reducing their intake of processed foods. But she also said that potatoes can be “super nutrient dense” and that the field of nutrition in general has had a problem with “vilifying” foods.

“I don’t think any public health person would say that people wouldn’t benefit from eating fewer fried potatoes. It would be good to eat fewer of them,” she said. “But I think that doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s a vegetable or not.”

It’s unclear when the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will release its recommendations, or whether a potential change in the potato’s food group would have an immediate effect on the crop’s consumption or the $100 billion industry.

For now, the potato — vegetable or not — is deeply embedded in the country’s diet, and often in the form of foods that seem hard to resist. As the singer Dolly Parton recently said on TikTok to her millions of followers: “Every diet I’ve ever fell off of has been because of a potato. … Potato, potato, potato! I’ve never met a spud I didn’t like.”

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