The vegetable that gets no respect

May 1, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Are potatoes healthy? You can call the potato the "Rodney Dangerfield" of vegetables. It gets no respect from the nutrition community, in spite of the fact that it is loaded with potassium, a vital nutrient that helps control everyone's blood pressure. Neither adults nor children consume enough potassium, according to the Institute of Medicine.

"Elevated blood pressure is a major risk for heart disease and stroke "“ the number one cause of death and disability globally," says Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the World Health Organization's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, which issued new guidelines, including that adults should consume at least 3,510 mg of potassium per day. A person with low potassium levels could be at risk of raised blood pressure that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Nutritionists urge consumers to eat potassium-rich foods such as beans and peas, nuts, vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, and parsley, and fruits such as bananas, papayas, and dates. Nutritionists do not even mention that a potato contains more potassium than a banana. And when was the last time you served your child a date, spinach, or cabbage? Processing and cooking reduces the amount of potassium in many food products.

When asking the question "are potatoes healthy? You have to realize the problem with potatoes is that when you think of it, everybody thinks of McD's French fries, a food nutrition activists want you to avoid. Potato growers and food manufacturers argue that a medium-baked russet potato contains 792 mg/serving of potassium "“ a lot! Nevertheless, when you add in the butter, salt, sour cream, bacon bits or guacamole, the nutritional benefits of the potato falls under the weight of the toppings. Who but dietitians eat a plain baked potato anyway?

Yes, potatoes made it into Mrs. Obama's garden, thanks to the Washington lobby for the potato growers. However, truth be told, for consumers peas and beans just are not as appealing as fries. The potato growers and the Department of Agriculture, using your tax dollars, have tried to market spud nutritional benefits. The growers fought and won a political fight to French fries in the school lunch program as a serving of vegetables. This victory came not because of nutrition, although that was the public reason, but because potatoes are a cash crop in more than 20 states "“ that is 40 votes in the U.S. Senate. The activists did not stand a chance.

Pity the poor potato. Unloved plain, unhealthy loaded down with fat and calories, the pariah of vegetables.

What to do?

The nutritionists will continue to say, "Eat your peas," when we know kids do not. The potato people will continue to say eat baked potatoes when their largest customers are fast food restaurants. Even in schools the "baked" fries are doused in oil, although only about 15 percent of schools in the Deep South deep fry everything these days.

Without a comprehensive nutrition education plan coming from state leaders, there is little reason to believe anything will change in any meaningful way.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published May 1, 2013 10:00:23 AM.