by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Potatoes

Aug 23 2021

Industry-funded studies of the week: One Potato, Two Potato

One Potato

Thanks to David Ludwig for alerting me to an e-mail from the Alliance for Potato Research & Education (APRE), a trade association “dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the role potatoes play in promoting the health of all people.”

A new APRE-funded study published in Nutrients investigated the effect of increased dietary potassium from a whole food source – baked/boiled potatoes and baked French fries – or a potassium supplement on blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease risk factors compared to a ‘typical American’ control diet (lower potassium intake) among 30 pre-hypertensive-to-hypertensive men and women.

Results showed that baked/boiled potato consumption had the greatest benefit on reducing sodium retention, even more than the supplement, and resulted in a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (SBP) compared to the control diet.

Further, despite commonly held misbeliefs about French fries and their role in heart-healthy lifestyles, the authors observed that a 330-calorie serving of baked French fries, when eaten as part of a ‘typical American’ diet, had no adverse effect on blood pressure or blood vessel function.

The study concludes:

This was the first controlled feeding study of potassium from food and supplements on BP and CVD outcomes in an unhealthy population…Of public health relevance is our observation that French fries in amounts typical of a large serving in a fast food restaurant has no adverse effect on blood pressure or endothelial function.

It discloses the funding source: “This research was funded by Alliance for Potato Research and Education.”

Comment: Because some (but not all) observational studies have linked potatoes, and especially French fries, to poor health outcomes, the potato industry wants research to give these foods a healthier image.  This study says that potatoes are high in potassium and a high potassium-to-sodium ratio is good for blood pressure and heart disease.  I could have told them that on the basis of food composition data alone: 100 grams of French fries contains 435 mg potassium versus 295 of sodium.  Does that make French fries a health food?  No, alas, it does not.

Once more for the record: industry-funded research is about marketing, not public health.

Two Potato

Last week, I received an emailed notification from APRE, the Alliance for Potato Research & Education announcing a new study.

For decades, people have often associated higher intakes of carbohydrate-containing foods with less healthy lifestyles. Yet, evidence suggests this view is overly simplistic, and it is instead the type and quality of carbohydrate foods that matter most for supporting health…In a newly published perspective in Nutrients, a group of nutrition researchers, who collectively make up the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition-Scientific Advisory Council (QCC-SAC), outline the opportunity for a stronger, more evidence-based approach to defining quality carbohydrate foods to support overall health and provide clearer dietary guidance.

The study: Toward an Evidence-Based Definition and Classification of Carbohydrate Food Quality: An Expert Panel Report.  Kevin B. Comerford, Yanni Papanikolaou,  Julie Miller Jones, Judith Rodriguez. Joanne Slavin,  Siddhartha Angadi.  and Adam Drewnowski.  Nutrients202113(8), 2667.

Conclusion: The identification of higher quality carbohydrate foods could improve evidence-based public health policies and programming—such as the 2025–2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Funding:  This work was supported by the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition (QCC), which is funded by Potatoes USA. The QCC was not involved in the expert panel discussions, manuscript preparation, or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.Conflicts of Interest: All authors are invited members of the Quality Carbohydrate Coalition’s Scientific Advisory Council (QCC-SAC). A.D. is the developer of the Nutrient Rich Food (NRF) index, a nutrient profiling model, and has received grants, contracts, and honoraria from entities, both public and private, with an interest in nutrient density of foods, complex meals, and the total diet. Y.P. is the president of Nutritional Strategies, collaborates on NHANES analyses and provides food, nutrition, and regulatory affairs consulting services for food/beverage companies and food-related associations. S.A. and J.M.J. advise the Grain Foods Foundation. J.S. has current grants from Taiyo and Barilla in the area of dietary fiber, and also serves on the Scientific Advisory Boards for Tate and Lyle and Atkins Nutritionals. J.R. has no conflicts of interest. K.B.C. is employed by FoodMinds, which provides science communications consulting services to various food and nutrition entities, including Potatoes USA and the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE).
Comment: This is a successful effort by the potato industry to engage academics in support of the value of potatoes in healthful diets.  The role of potatoes in health is a contentious issue in the nutrition research community (see, for example, this FrontLine interview with Walter Willett).  The potato industry is fighting back by funding research (see above and also a previous post) and now engaging sympathetic academics.  I think potatoes are fine, in moderation.  But I wish academics would stay out of conflicted situations like this one.Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observations that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests and that recipients of industry funding typically did not intend to be influenced and do not recognize the influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Mar 15 2021

Annals of food industry marketing: potatoes

I like potatoes and they have plenty of nutritional value along with their calories, but their calories mainly come from starch—a rapidly digested carbohydrate.

The Harvard Food Pyramid puts potatoes in the “Eat Sparingly” category, right at the top with red meat, butter, and sugary beverages.

Potato industry marketers to the rescue!  Take a look at the website of Potatoes USA, which has as its mission developing marketing campaigns for the industry.

Industry participation is key to making any campaign a success. Here you’ll find marketing tools that will help you promote the positive potato nutrition message.  Find the tools that match your organization, whether you’re looking for resources for retailersmanufacturersconsumersfoodservice operators, or information on potato nutrition.

Here you can find a toolkit on how to market potatoes:

For years we’ve talked about why you can eat potatoes. Now we’re talking about why you should eat potatoes. Getting the whole industry involved is key to getting this message heard. Find the tools you need to support the process with events in your area.

I was interested in what they have to say about nutrition, of course: “Potatoes are more energy-packed than any other popular vegetable and provide the carbohydrates, potassium and energy you need to perform your best.”

The nutrition campaign focuses on energy for performance.  It provides a Nutrition Facts label that reassures you that one 5.3-ounce potato has only 110 calories.

It doesn’t say much—anything, really—about how Americans mostly eat potatoes, which happens to be as fries or chips.

It does provide tons of information about marketing methods, the research sponsored by the potato industry, and even issues regarding international trade—a goldmine if you are interested in this sort of thing.

If you just want to eat them, watch out for the added fats.  The bigger the potato—and the more butter and sour cream—the higher the calories.

Nov 6 2020

Weekend reading: Potato Politics

Rebecca Earle.  Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato.  Cambridge University Press, 2020.


The historian Rebecca Earle uses the potato as an entry point into investigations of some of the most important political issues of our time: immigration, free-market capitalism, and globalization.  As she puts it, her book

offers a deep history of the concept of food security and fresh account of how eating became part of modern politics.  It also helps to explain our own fraught relationship with dietary guidelines by showing how healthy eating became embedded within a neoliberal framework valorising personal responsibility and choice rather than state-led intervention” (p. 3).

A couple more excerpts to give you an idea where she is headed with this.  Malthus, she says, had a “dismal vision of catastrophic population increase.”  With this vision

came pessimism about the potato’s capacity to contribute to national well-being.  Far from increasing trade and boosting economic exchange, the potato bcame an obstacle to modernity, because it helped sustain precisely the sectors of the population that capitalism aimed to eradicate” (p. 141).

Later, she describes the Peruvian International Potato Center (its Spanish acronym is CIP):

Peru is not alone in its gastronational celebration of local potato varieties.  A number of countries, from Denmark to Ecuador, have likewise established national potato days, or sought to protect specific varieties under international legislation…International regulatory structures thus help to nationalise potatoes by according them formal status as part of the national patrimony.  Its long history as an overlooked, localised food resource now enables the potato to toggle between the global food system and notions of culinary heritage, in a way that other major commodities such as sugar or maize have largely failed to do (pp. 197-198).

Oct 26 2020

Industry-funded studies of the week: potatoes

The potato industry has a problem.  Some nutrition experts do not recommend them and argue that potatoes—especially French fries—raise blood sugar levels and should be excluded from recommendations to increase vegetable intake (I love potatoes in any form but try not to overeat them—everything in moderation if you can manage that, and I can).

In any case, the The Alliance for Potato Research & Education (APRE) is devoted to protecting the reputation—and sales–of potatoes, and funds research for that purpose.

The study: Daily intake of non-fried potato does not affect markers of glycaemia and is associated with better diet quality compared with refined grains: a randomised,crossover study in healthy adults.   EA Johnston et al.  British Journal of Nutrition (2020), 123, 1032–1042.

Results: “Compared with refined grains, the HEI-2015 Healthy Eating Index] scores..were higher following the potato condition. Consuming non-fried potatoes resulted in higher diet quality, K  [potassium] and fibre intake, without adversely affecting cardiometabolic risk.”

Financial Support: The Alliance for Potato Research and Education provided funds for the research conducted. Their staff were not involved in any aspects of conducting the study, analyzing the data or interpreting the results presented.

Comment: The APRE says it remains firmly committed to the scientific integrity of industry-funded research”  Its guidelines for research integrity sound good, but don’t address the inherent problems of industry-funded research: the well established “funding effect” that virtually guarantees that industry-funded research will produce results that favor the sponsor’s interests, and the also well established observation that investigator bias tends to occur at an unconscious level.  The exclusion of fried potatoes from this particular study suggests that the investigators know that frequent eating of French fries is a marker of poor diet quality.  I think potatoes have a place in healthy diets and that much depends on their particular role and preparation.  As with much in nutrition, the potato situation is complicated, and industry funding does not help with clarification.

Nov 25 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Potatoes (they improve athletic performance!)

The study: Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance.  Salvador AF, et al.  J Applied Physiology, 17 October 2019.

Conclusion: “Potato and gel ingestion equally sustained blood glucose concentrations and TT [time-trial] performance. Our results support the effective use of potatoes to support race performance for trained cyclists.”

Funder: The Alliance for Potato Research and Education, “a not-for-profit organisation funded by the potato industry in the US.”

Comment:  I learned about this study from an article in NutraIngrendients.com: “Powered by potato? Spuds ‘just as good’ as carb gels for athletic performance, says study.”

Despite my previous correspondence and interview with the editor of NutraIngredients, the article failed to mention the study’s industry sponsor.

This was especially disappointing because its sister publication, FoodNavigator.com, covered the same study but quoted the funding statement.

The study’s title and result should have triggered a look to see who paid for it.  Really?  Cyclists are supposed to carry potatoes with them to eat on long races?   Why would anyone other than potato sellers even think of such a thing?

Addition: But see comments from readers…

I was interested to hear this from Courtney Puidk, a dietitian:

Love your industry updates – BUT actually using potatoes as fuel has been a thing with cyclists for a long time. I have several friends and an ex who used baked potatoes as fuel during bike races and triathlons because potatoes are 99% glucose so they shoot through you fast, and they have lots of potassium and sodium so act as natural electrolytes. They fit nicely into the pockets of cycling jerseys and/or water bottle holders. And they’re cheap! Not to mention a whole food fuel source over some pricey, marketed sugar gel with lots of packaging.  Plenty of reasons to use potatoes as fuel!

And Simone Braithwaite, a reader from Australia, writes:

A friend of mine recently did the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. She has now done the 100km twice – once for each direction. Funny thing is, on the course the provided energy source is boiled potatoes (with salt). Runners actually carrying boiled potatoes along as they trudge this arduous race, apparently nibbling/sucking as they go.  In this developing world context I actually thought this was excellent as potatoes are an affordable and accessible food source for all. I also wondered how long this tradition would last – before multinationals got in with their ‘superior’ ultra processed products. Maybe this is one case where this study will be most useful!!!?

OK.  I concede.

Mar 11 2019

Industry-funded research journal: potatoes

Since my book Unsavory Truth came out late last year, I am posting occasional recent examples of issues I discussed in it.  Today’s issue: industry funding of research on potatoes of all things.

I am well aware that the role of white potatoes in the U.S. diet is hotly contested.   The EAT-Lancet report I wrote about recently advises against eating potatoes:

Potatoes, although containing large concentrations of potassium and some other vitamins, provide a large amount of rapidly absorbed carbohydrate, or glycaemic load. Daily consumption has been associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and weight gain.

Obviously, the potato industry would like to counter advise like that.  Its Alliance for Potato Research & Education is devoted to precisely that cause.  The Alliance explains that it is “Dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of the role potatoes play in promoting the health of all people.”  It issues grants for up to $200,000 for “nutrition research proposals that help to advance scientific knowledge on the role of potatoes in various health outcomes” (the 2019 deadline just passed).

But I’ve just learned that the potato industry publishes its very own research journal: the American Journal of Potato Research.   It s subtitle: The Official Journal of the Potato Association of America, described as “A Professional Society for Advancement of the Potato Industry.”

Surprisingly, the papers in this journal are behind a paywall.  If the industry wants its research to be read and digested (sorry), I would think its papers would be open access (I was able to get this through NYU’s library).

One paper in particular caught my eye:

Invited review: Potatoes, Nutrition and Health Katherine A. Beals.  American Journal of Potato Research, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s12230-018-09705-4

Conclusion:  Until we have better research, “dietary guidance should continue to stress the importance of healthy eating patterns that consist of a variety of vegetables, including nutrient dense potatoes.”

Author’s funding disclosure: none.

Comment:  Evidently, this journal does not require authors to disclose funding.  Or perhaps every paper in this journal is sponsored by the potato industry?  Dr. Beals’ c.v. discloses consulting for the Potato Board.

I enjoy eating potatoes and view their effects on health as depending on how they are prepared, how much is eaten, and how often.

The purpose of potato-sponsored research is to cast doubt on studies suggesting that eating less of them would be better for your health.  When you see studies of potatoes and health, be sure to ask who paid for them.

Jan 17 2019

Annals of food marketing: Gold-leafed potato chips!

When Torsten Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, he could not possibly have imagined this product when he invented the term “conspicuous consumption.”

Koikeya-3

I am indebted to BakeryAndSnacks.com for its noting the new “bling in snacks:”

Japanese snack maker Koikeya…collaborated with gold-leaf maker Hakuichi…to create the Koikeya Pride Potato Kanazawa Gold Leaf Salt chips. The chips are crafted with particular care to the ingredients and frying process, using gold leaf pieces in two different sizes to ensure the chips are thoroughly coated.

The Koikeya Pride Potato Kanazawa Gold Leaf Salt chips are priced at 300 yen for a 68g bag, available at convenience stores across Japan.

The snack maker is also offering an exclusive set that comes with three packages of extra gold leaf that consumers can sprinkle onto the chips.The set, priced at 2,000 yen ($18), includes three 68g (2.4oz) bags of the chips and three 0.12g (0.004oz) packets of extra gold leaf.

Gold-plated junk food?

Fortunately, gold has no calories.

Jul 5 2017

Thinking about: potatoes!

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has a new study with a startling conclusion: “frequent consumption of fried potatoes appears to be associated with an increased mortality risk” (here’s a news report about it).

For lovers of French fries, this is unhappy news.  Or is it?

The study looked at potato intake (fried and unfried) reported by 4440 participants aged 45–79 y at baseline for 8 years, as part of a study on osteoarthritis.  Participants with the highest consumption of potatoes had the same mortality as those consuming the lowest amount.

But when they looked at the subgroup consuming fried potatoes 2–3 times per week, the risk of mortality doubled.

It’s not potatoes that might be a problem; it’s just those that are fried.  Even so,

  • The study is based on intake reported in food frequency questionnaires
  • The results are not cleanly dose-related; mortality rates were higher among people reporting fried potatoes twice a week than those reporting more
  • People who eat lots of fried potatoes are likely to indulge in other unhealthful dietary or lifestyle practices.

But this is not the first study to report health problems among frequent eaters of fried potatoes.  See:

This is a lot to blame on one food.  I vote for lifestyle confounding.

Put French fries in your once-in-awhile category.  I’m saving my allotment for the Belgian ones.

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