Experts defend bashed potato
They say tuber's bad reputation is overstated, linked to frying
Is it the potatoes or the sauce and grease on the potatoes that makes them unhealthy? (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)
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.