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No Small Comfort

Where diets offer empty promises, spuds give people their deserved fill.


Back when the potato was still seen as a novelty by most of the world, Andean people were way ahead of the curve in their intimate knowledge of the crop’s wild relatives. Their affinity for the potato was so strong they were willing to go to extreme measures to consume it—coating tubers in a “gravy” of clay and water most likely as a means to neutralize toxic compounds like solanine and tomatine.[1]

Today, the toxicity surrounding potatoes isn’t so much coming from within as from without. Just as the potato has learned to cope with a growing consortium of pests and pathogens, it has also had to develop a thicker skin to deflect the vitriol that some direct at it. But it will take a concerted effort to show the public why the potato has done more than enough to earn the label of a nutritional powerhouse—one deserving of a spot on the most cutting-edge of menus. Let the tater haters be; no amount of gravy will ever make the potato palatable to them. Our focus needs to be on putting the potato’s virtues front and center for the swing eaters: those who may be on the fence about America’s favorite vegetable yet are ready and willing to listen.

What will it take to cut through the noise to reach the audiences ambivalent about the potato? Data. Fortunately, the facts tell a much different story about the potato than the naysayers would have it. Food balance sheets serve as indisputable confirmation of the potato’s place in diets that are regarded without exception as healthy. The literature also offers up ample evidence for the tuber as a resilient and resource-efficient crop, well-adapted for a future in which volatile weather seems likely to worsen while arable land and freshwater sources grow scarcer.[2]

Take the Mediterranean diet, the gold standard for good eating, as a case study.[3] What makes the Mediterranean unique among diets is that it isn’t really one: rather than being manufactured by expert outsiders, the culinary patterns that comprise it arose organically across a wide region over decades—so it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the largest longitudinal, naturally occurring nutrition study the world has seen. The arc of the Mediterranean diet extends back to the Middle Ages, with scholars attributing its origins to Roman tastes for olive oil, seafood, wine, and other hearty fares among which the potato is right at home. Only much later did it receive an official designation, when, in 1993, the nonprofit Oldways, along with the World Health Organization and The Harvard School of Public Health, declared it a superior alternative to existing food pyramids.[4] Since then, a succession of prestigious healthcare institutions—the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the Mayo Clinic, among other reputable names—have followed suit in vouching for the diet.[5]

Strangely enough, no one seems to agree on a definition of the Mediterranean diet. Usually, it’s described as “the balanced use of foods rich in fiber, antioxidants and unsaturated fats,” as one 2013 journal article writes.[6] Listing out macronutrients and compounds that appear numerous diets beyond the Mediterranean doesn’t get us any closer to a consensus. But this generality is not such a bad thing: it gives us the opportunity to review the facts and write our own definition—one that brings potatoes to the fore. Over time, certain vocal parties have succeeded in pushing the tuber further down the pecking order of foods in the Mediterranean model. This trend owes itself to the work of scholars who use narrow measuring sticks, like the glycemic index (GI), to vilify potatoes in absolute terms—an approach that T. Colin Campbell, co-author of the landmark China Study, would wave off as “reductionist biology.”[7] You only need to bring a second metric into the equation to see just how flawed this logic is. According to the Satiety Index, a measure correlated with improved weight management that bottoms out at 100 (a position held by white bread) no food is more filling than boiled potatoes: at 323%, they are nearly 100% more filling than the second-most satiating food, found to be Ling fish.8 Boiled potatoes are almost twice as satisfying as beef (176%), more filling than brown rice (132%), and over four times as hunger-alleviating as a Mars candy bar (70%).[8] But in the GI’s appraisal, chocolate (GI = ~40) would be deemed doubly superior to boiled potatoes (GI = ~78). It’s far-fetched to think that a dietician would ever prescribe, to someone striving for balanced eating, a candy-bar binge rather than a handful of boiled potatoes that deliver a satiated feeling and a host of nutrients at a fraction of the calories. Yet, this is the case when the GI becomes the be-all, end-all. The math doesn’t add up here, but for the potato’s antagonists, arithmetic matters little. For most of the populace, however, it does—presenting us with the platform to tell consumers that potatoes, when viewed in a different light, come out on top.

Inevitably this argument won’t cut it for the adversarial parties out there, who will likely claim the Mediterranean model includes the potato as an afterthought. But that becomes a tough claim to make the moment data (courtesy of FAOSTAT) enter the fray. In both per capita consumption and availability, the potato is a prominent staple in the Mediterranean region, and in some cases, it’s eaten in greater quantities than in the countries we tend to think of as potato-centric. The most recent census data shows that in the U.S., Japan, and Mexico, per capita daily consumption clocks in at 85 kilocalories (kcal), 39 kcal, and 28 kcal per day. If these seem like high volumes, consider that four core Mediterranean states—Morocco, Greece, Spain, and Portugal—easily outstrip these numbers, their per capita consumption rates clocking in at 94, 102, 103, and 122 kcal.[9] That’s as close to objective as evidence gets that potatoes are alive and well the world over.

For years, diets have ruled over the domain of consumption with an iron fist, gaining such power over us that we’re guilt-ridden when we partake in the most minor of indulgences. It comes as little surprise, then, that experts are predicting 2020 as the year that consumers finally rise up and rebel against ascetic eating regimens. A January 2020 article in Business Insider reported that a recent poll revealed a majority of Americans were leaning towards “intuitive eating,” which, in contrast to the hard and fast laws of a diet, offers only general, Zen-sounding guidelines like “honor your hunger” and “feel your fullness.”[10] And a growing body of research suggests that intuitive eating elevates self-confidence, psychological resilience, and even exercise habits to a greater extent than standard diets.[11] We’re forging ahead into a new decade under the long shadow of a global pandemic, alongside a polarized political landscape and uneasy trade relations. As the ultimate comfort food, potatoes offer us needed respite. We shouldn’t have to call upon metrics like the Satiety Index to prove the potato’s worth in the modern era: in the end, the capacity of the potato to provide physical and emotional fulfillment speaks for itself.

By Ben Harris, Research Associate Manager & John Toaspern, Chief Marketing Officer, Potatoes USA

[1] Browman, David  & Gundersen, James. “Altiplano comestible earths: Prehistoric and historic geophagy of Highland Peru and Bolivia.” Geoarchaeology, October 1993. 

[2] See, for example, Hess et al. “The Impact of Changing Food Choices on the Blue Water Scarcity Footprint and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the British Diet: The Example of Potato, Pasta and Rice.” Journal of Cleaner Production, January 2016.

[3] Dinu et al. “Mediterranean Diet and Multiple Health Outcomes: an Umbrella Review of Observational Studies and Randomised Trials.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2017.

[4] “Mediterranean Diet.” Oldways. Accessed January 29, 2020.

[5] Boucher. “Mediterranean Eating Pattern.” Diabetes Spectrum, May 2017.

[6] Altomare et al. “The Mediterranean Diet: A History of Health.” Iran Journal of Public Health, May 2013.

[7] Campbell. “Nutritional Renaissance and Public Health Policy.” Journal of Nutritional Biology, August 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Country Food Balance Sheets, FAOSTAT, December 2019.

[10] Landsverk, Gabby. “’Intuitive Eating’ Is on the Rise, and Experts Say It’s Because People Are Fed up with Diet Culture.” Business Insider, January 21, 2020

[11] Bégin, C, Carbonneau E, Gagnon-Girouard MP, et al. “Eating-Related and Psychological Outcomes of Health at Every Size Intervention in Health and Social Services Centers Across the Province of Quebec.” American Journal Health Promot, February 2019. 

Holt, SH, JC Miller, P Petocz, and E Farmakalidis. “A Satiety Index of Common Foods.” The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 1995.

Mann, Charles C. “How the Potato Changed the World.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011.

Paddon-Jones, Douglas, Eric Westman, Richard D. Mattes, et al. “Protein, Weight Management, and Satiety.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2008.

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