By Amy Myrdal Miller
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of magazine.
A client called me at 5 p.m. this past Friday, which is never a good sign.
“How can I help?” I asked tentatively. “Are potatoes a vegetable?” he implored. I laughed, assured him potatoes are indeed a vegetable, and then asked why he was asking.
It turns out his legal team was advising him to omit information about potatoes on an educational activity for children. Pressure from well-meaning public health officials had led the legal team to decide it was in the best interest of my client to not to promote potatoes as part of a healthful diet. I sighed and went on to share some of the research that supports the role of potatoes in the diet.
Before I share this information with you, I should disclose that I have a pretty big potato bias. I was born and raised in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. I grew up eating red skin potatoes on an almost daily basis.
These gorgeous potatoes are still one of my favorite vegetables, especially the baby ones freshly harvested from my mom’s garden. Boiled whole until soft, gently mashed with a fork, and topped with a bit of butter and black pepper…potato perfection! But I digress.
Let’s dig into the research now.
National dietary intake data show that potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable. They make up about one-quarter of adult vegetable intake and about one-third of the vegetables eaten by children ages 2 to 19. Boys tend to eat more potatoes than girls.
We consume potatoes in many forms with boiled being most common (31%) followed by chips (22%), French fries (19%), baked (17%), and home fries or hash browns (12%).
Many people believe that eating potatoes, especially chips or French fries, contributes to excessive sodium intake, but just 4% of average national sodium intake comes from all starchy vegetables, including all forms of potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables.
Potatoes are good sources of potassium and dietary fiber, two “nutrients of concerns” that most Americans don’t consume enough of each day. In terms of potassium per serving, potatoes top the list. They are also one of the top six best sources of dietary fiber. From this dietitian’s point of view, potatoes are a nutrient-rich vegetable that deserve more respect.
So why are potatoes so maligned by some public health and nutrition professionals? There are many studies that provide associations between obesity and potato intake, especially French fry intake. But associations do not provide direct evidence. You’re more likely to see umbrellas on rainy days, but that doesn’t mean umbrellas create rain. (If that were true, everyone in California would be carrying an umbrella!)
There are also studies that show associations between colon cancer risk and potato intake, but these same studies show inverse relationships between high fruit and vegetable intake and risk of colon cancer. So perhaps the potato isn’t to blame but rather a lack of adequate fruit and vegetable intake.
And then there are the proponents of eating low glycemic foods who claim potatoes increase blood sugar levels too quickly. The trouble with this data is that it doesn’t reflect how people actually eat potatoes. The data for my beloved red skin potatoes is based on potatoes that are boiled with skin on in salted water for 12 minutes. The addition of butter, olive oil, sour cream, or whatever else you may put on your potatoes, will change the glycemic impact as will the composition of the entire meal in which you are eating potatoes.
We should also talk about all the people who get upset about the fat and calories in French fries. Sure, potatoes fried in oil contain more calories than a similar portion of baked or boiled potatoes. But the caloric content of a single food shouldn’t be your focus. The overall calories and quality of your diet is much more important.
So, let’s get back to the initial question my client had. Are potatoes a vegetable? Yes. Do they deserve more respect? Definitely! But so does the dietary recommendation to make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
We have to stop vilifying certain foods and start celebrating produce in all forms. We have to focus on flavor and enjoyment. And we have to focus on the science. Scare tactics won’t help Americans get healthier, but positive messages based on research will help more Americans find their way to more fruits and vegetables, maybe even more red skin potatoes…boiled until soft, gently mashed with a fork, and topped with a bit of butter and black pepper.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, known kale hater, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com and you can follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller