Potatoes have taken a mashing lately, being blamed over other foods for people's long-term weight gain and possibly being limited in favor of other vegetables for school lunches.
The very crop seen as essential to feed the hungry in developing countries is maligned in U.S. nutrition circles because it's often a fast-food side dish or boat for butter, sour cream, cheese and bacon bits.
But school cooks know them as a sure bet and farmers depend on them for a living, and neither group takes kindly to what some are calling a "faddish" attack on the dependable and nutritious potato.
The two-pronged assault boils down to:
•A study in the New England Journal of Medicine that points to french fries and potato chips as the two foods causing the most long-term weight gain. Boiled, baked or mashed potatoes contributed to more pounds than sweets and desserts, according to the study.
•A new proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the amount of starchy vegetables, including most potato dishes, served in school lunches.
The research, performed by a team from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, revealed that the more than 120,000 U.S. health professionals who participated and whose diet and lifestyle choices were tracked for at least 12 years gained an average of 1.69 pounds every four years when they increased their daily intake of potato chips. And those who upped their daily consumption of boiled, baked or mashed potatoes gained an average of 0.57 pounds over four years.
Those who increased their daily servings of french fries over a four-year period gained an average of 3.35 pounds.
The problem is that "we don't eat potatoes raw, so it's easier (for the body) to transform the starch to glucose," said study co-author Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Because spuds prompt a quick increase in blood sugar levels, they cause the pancreas to go into overdrive, trying to bring levels back to normal. As blood sugar spirals down, people usually experience hunger, which leads to snacking. Over many years, this cycle can result in drastic weight gain and a fatigued pancreas, possibly contributing to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
"Potatoes in and of themselves do offer some valuable nutrients, especially if they're consumed with the skin," said Linda Van Horn, Northwestern University professor of preventive medicine and research nutrition. "When they're deep fat fried and added with salt-containing condiments, like ketchup, they just disappear as providing anything nutritious and just add calories."
Another of the study's authors, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, said a large baked potato — without any fixings — has about 278 calories, and a serving of french fries contains between 500 and 600 calories.
Ina Pinkney, who runs Ina's restaurant at 1235 W. Randolph St. in Chicago and who has helped lead several health initiatives, including the city's smoking ban, says efforts to bash the potato are a fad.
"Let me tell you about my customer base — they really believe the things I tell them because I do a lot of reading. We were cutting out trans fats before anyone else, we were serving pasteurized eggs. I inform my customers about what's really out there that are fads and trends. Unless I can come up with more than one or two studies that say something, then I am not going to bother my customers about it. We make potato cakes, latkes, garlic roasted red potatoes and we've seen no push-back whatsoever," Pinkney said.
Andrzej Burak touts Andrzej Grill and Restaurant at 1022 N. Western Ave. in Chicago as a "potato restaurant."
"We are cooking Polish foods, and most of our clients eat potatoes. Usually (they) eat potatoes as a side dish — pancakes, dumplings, boiled. (They're) crazy about the potato," he said. "People come here for the potato."
Neumiller Farms in Savanna, Ill., has increased the number of potatoes it's growing this year to meet customer demand, owner Tom Neumiller said. The tuber comes out of the earth with no fat and containing vitamin C, potassium and fiber, said Neumiller, who eats them every day, adding, "My doctor says, 'I am in perfect health.'"
"There are a lot of good things that we pack into a potato, and for the cost, they are one of the best bargains in the supermarket," he said.
Karl Ritchie, an agronomist at Walther Farms in Three Rivers, Mich., whose focus is potato farming, decided to eat better when he was diagnosed prediabetic five years ago.
"I lost 40 pounds without removing potatoes from my daily diet," he said.
Potatoes weren't the only foods associated with weight gain in the Harvard study. Increased servings per day of sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, and sweets or desserts over four years led to an average weight gain of 1 pound, 0.95 pounds, 0.93 pounds and 0.41 pounds, respectively.
Van Horn says the study documents where people are getting their calories rather than comparing which foods cause more weight gain if consumed in equal amounts.
Calories in french fries add up, she said, but so do double burgers and several servings of soda, common fare in fast-food restaurants.
"The french fry in and of itself might be an indicator of an eating pattern that's not consistent with weight control," Van Horn said.
Rather than vilifying the potato, the message of the study should be that people are less likely to gain weight if they consume a diet filled with foods higher in fiber and water content, Van Horn said. The study showed that people who increased their daily intake of vegetables, whole grains, fruits and nuts during a four-year period lost an average of 0.22 pounds, 0.37 pounds, 0.49 pounds and 0.57 pounds, respectively.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture employed that kind of thinking in proposing that school lunch programs replace many of their potato servings with vegetables associated with weight loss. The proposal would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals in fall 2012 at the earliest, USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel said.
School lunches are required to provide one-half to one cup of fruits and vegetables in any combination each day. The proposal would separate fruits and vegetables, requiring students to receive three-quarters to one cup of vegetables as well as one-half to one cup of fruits every day.
In addition, the new standard would specify certain vegetable subgroups that must be served. School lunches would have to offer weekly at least a half-cup each of dark green and orange vegetables and legumes. And starchy vegetables, including corn, lima beans, green peas and white potatoes, would be limited to one cup per week "to encourage students to try new vegetables."
The idea is to introduce students to healthier eating, proper portions and balanced diets, Daniel said.
"We're doing a really good job of eating starchy vegetables, but we're not doing a very good job as a whole of eating a variety of vegetables," Daniel said. "You will still see potatoes or corn or lima beans on the menu, but you will also see other vegetables that have nutrients children are not getting."
In Chicago Public Schools lunches, starchy vegetables have been limited to one cup a week since fall 2010, said spokesman Frank Shuftan. Tater Tots and other such products are served once a week in CPS elementary schools and available two times a week in high schools, he said.
In Joliet Public Schools District 86, potato servings of one-quarter to one-half cup are served roughly three times a week, said Bill White, food service director for the district. To prepare for the possibility of the new rules, the district will serve more vegetables such as sweet potatoes, cauliflower and spinach, he said.
It will cost more to offer a larger variety of vegetables, but White said he's mostly concerned that lunches are high quality and enjoyable.
"I don't think anyone would argue the concept that it's good to expose kids to different things," White said. "(But) the bottom line is that the kids have got to eat it for there to be any value to it. If the kids don't eat the spinach, all we're doing is meeting a national guideline."
Naperville Community Unit School District 203 started limiting potato sides about two years ago to once a week, said Barb Brown, general manager of food service provider Sodexo, and she said she didn't see any drop-off in the number of lunches sold.
Students can browse an all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables bar with such choices as spinach, zucchini sticks, cucumber slices and salad, she said.
Daniel said there will be a learning curve for both students and school food professionals.
"Kids aren't going to like (something new) necessarily the first time they have it. It's going to take some work, but I think our children's future depends on it, and it's an important thing to do," Daniel said.
Tribune Newspapers contributed.
Kelly April is a Tribune reporter; Kristen Kridel is a freelancer.