PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, knows that potatoes have gotten a really bad rap in the past few years.
A surge in low carbohydrate or no carbohydrate diets a few years ago led many people to substitute a serving of mashed cauliflower for an order of mashed potatoes.
Despite an aggressive campaign by the potato industry to point out the health benefits of the product, some people still believe potatoes are unhealthful — and it appears that the U.S. Department of Agriculture may agree.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was part of a bipartisan group of 19 senators who wrote recently to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak asking him to include potatoes with other fruits and vegetables offered as part of the federal government’s Women, Infants and Children program.
The WIC program makes qualifying foods available for low-income and nutritionally at-risk pregnant women and their infants and children. The USDA is in the process of reviewing WIC program rule changes. In late 2007, the USDA revised the program to include fresh fruits and vegetables for the first time. In the past, WIC recipients have received items such as milk, eggs, cheese, cereal, and peanut butter. Under the program, clients now also can buy soy beverages, organic milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, except potatoes.
Potatoes were specifically excluded when the rules were changed in 2007 largely because the USDA determined that most people already eat enough of the vegetable, according to the USDA’s website.
Flannery said Wednesday that the issue is something the Maine Potato Board has been following closely.
“The USDA looked at various figures to make their decision, including carbohydrate levels and other facts,” he explained. “But we in the industry don’t really understand it. Potatoes are a good source of potassium and a good source of Vitamin C. They are a valid part of a healthy diet.”
In the letter to Vilsack, Collins and her colleagues pushed for the inclusion of potatoes in the program.
The senators pointed out that during a public comment period on program rules, more than 4,300 comments were submitted, including 231 specifically regarding potatoes. Of those comments, 229 were supportive of including potatoes in the WIC program. Forty-three percent of those comments came from WIC program managers and staff.
“These key administrators of the WIC program expressed concern over the exclusion of potatoes, which are loaded with priority nutrients that have been identified by the Institute of Medicine as lacking in the diets of young children,” they wrote.
The exclusion of potatoes, which is the only fruit or vegetable to be excluded, “sends a message to WIC participants that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes potatoes are not healthy,” the senators wrote.
Efforts to reach officials from USDA were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Flannery said Wednesday that potatoes seem to be the food that people point to as being unhealthful when they think of the South Beach Diet or the Atkins Diet, which promote a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. He said that people often think of items such as french fries and potato chips when they think of potatoes instead of focus-ing on the potato itself. One medium-size baked potato has just 110 calories and provides 620 milligrams of potassium if eaten with the skin, according to figures from the Maine Potato Board. It also contains more Vitamin C than one medium tomato.
The Maine Potato Board had joined the potato industry in touting healthy facts about the potato for years. In 2006, the Mr. Potato Head balloon that is featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade even got a makeover. The balloon now features a healthy Mr. Potato Head, complete with running shoes, baseball cap, portable MP3 player, water bottle and toned-up muscles.
While those ads were very well-received, Flannery said, some people still classify the potato as a diet “don’t.” At one time, he said, the industry even promoted the carbohydrates in their product.
“For several years, we donated potatoes to the Boston Marathon,” recalled Flannery. “The runners always ate them at a dinner before the race because the dinner was intended to help them load up on carbohydrates. It was a very positive thing.”
In the letter to Vilsack, the senators pushed him to reconsider and include spuds as part of a final rule updating the WIC program.
“Potatoes allow WIC participants to supply much-needed nutrients to their families while maximizing their WIC program dollars,” they wrote. “Additionally, excluding potatoes will only create administrative burdens for participating grocers and vendors. The public comments, from both WIC program managers and staff, reflected this. The exclusion of only one fruit or vegetable is an unnecessary logistical complexity for all who use the WIC program — participants, grocers and vendors.”
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is expected to enact a final rule in February 2011.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.