“Stop Picking on Potatoes. They can feed the world” appears in the food section of the January 25, 2017 Washington Post. Written by the paper’s senior food writer, Tamar Haspel, it begins by noting that just about everyone, and all institutions offering advice on what Americans should eat, stress the same thing – eat more fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. Yet, Tamar notes, there has been one consistent exception, the “beleaguered potato.”
Why are potatoes left off the “good for you” veggie train? It comes down to their starch content. Starch is quickly metabolized into glucose and triggers a spike in energy, and then another one in the production of insulin, to keep blood sugar levels balanced. But the energy boost is often followed by an equally precipitous collapse, which, among other things, leaves us feeling hungry when we really should not be.
This vicious cycle is one of the pillars of overweight and obesity.
Still, as Haspel points out, potatoes contain high levels of many essential nutrients, are widely accessible, and very affordable. Potatoes are also a very high-yield crop, which means that each acre produces a boatload of what we call “human nutrition units.” For more, see our section on Nutrient Profiling Systems and Human Nutrition Units: A New Tool to Promote Food Security.
While the vast majority of Americans have access to adequate food energy, i.e. calories, over 1 billion people on the planet are chronically malnourished because they do not. For this portion of humanity, potatoes have a lot to offer. As Tamar says near the end of her piece, the challenge is not just improving the quality of the American diet — “The problem is feeding the world, and we have to avoid crafting solutions in our own dinner’s image. Let’s hear it for the potato.”
In another recent piece, Tamar tried to make the argument that lettuce and other fresh, leafy greens are really expensive foods not worth the prime-time billing they get in dietary recommendations. But she missed the boat on leafy greens for failing to think deeply enough about the big contribution to nutrient needs from each serving of leafy greens, especially relative to their tiny share of daily caloric intake. For the full story, see the 12/16/16 post “A Shallow Look at the Economics of Healthy Food.”