The latest food-shaming headlines attack a vegetable! Yes, it’s the poor potato, the latest poster child for a “bad” food. No less than a Harvard professor declared potatoes “starch bombs” in a recent New York Times article that also claimed potatoes’ “high glycemic index” is linked to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
While the study cited in the story is actually about the relationship between fried potatoes and health, the story itself seems to more of an all-out assault on potatoes in general. As my stock-in-trade is “Eating Beyond the Headlines,” let’s take a closer look at the claims in this article and the real facts and science related to potatoes and their place on your plate.
Claim #1: Potatoes rank near the bottom of healthful vegetables.
This first claim continues with, “and lack the compounds and nutrients found in green leafy vegetables.” While it’s true that potatoes and other white vegetables don’t contain the beta-carotene plentiful in deep orange and dark green ones, that doesn’t mean potatoes don't deliver valuable nutrients. A small baked potato with the skin contains a mere 130 calories and 3.6 grams protein along with 22% of the daily recommendation for potassium, 19% for vitamin C, 13% for fiber, 10% for magnesium and 9% each for folic acid and niacin.
To further validate potatoes’ nutritional contributions, a 2012 Purdue University roundtable session, “White Vegetables: A Forgotten Source of Nutrients” brought together researchers and scientific experts who provided substantial evidence that eating white vegetables, such as potatoes, can increase shortfall nutrients, especially fiber, potassium and magnesium, as well as help increase overall vegetable consumption in the U.S.
Claim #2: Potatoes are “starch bombs.”
Starch, the main source of carbohydrate in our diets, is composed of hundreds of glucose molecules. Therefore, it’s known as “complex” carbohydrate as compared to sugars, which are “simple” carbohydrate. Glucose, a simple carbohydrate or sugar, is the body’s primary fuel source. Without it our bodies couldn't function!
There’s really nothing bad about starch. If fact, some of the starch in potatoes is not even digested - resistant starch. “Resistant starch acts as a prebiotic or food for the gut bacteria (probiotic)," explains registered dietitian nutritionist, Angela Lemond, owner of Lemond Nutrition in Plano, Texas. "Potatoes become even more of a resistant starch when they are cooked and then cooled down. Either let them cool before eating or refrigerate them and cut them cool into a salad.” At a time when many folks are concerned about gut health and getting more prebiotics and probiotics to enhance their intestinal microbiome, potatoes offer a natural way to do that without expensive supplements.
Claim #3: Potatoes have a high glycemic index, linked to higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
According to Melissa Joy Dobbins, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator in the Chicago area, it's not the glycemic index of individual foods that matters, but the glycemic load of the entire meal. "Most people don’t eat a potato by itself but instead as part of a mixed meal with other foods, likely including some protein and fat. Therefore, the glycemic load of the meal counteracts the glycemic index of individual foods," she says.
More evidence to dispute this claim is documented in a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers reviewed 13 studies investigating the role of potatoes in obesity, diabetes and heart disease and concluded that they did not provide strong evidence of an association between intake of potatoes and risks of these conditions.
Claim #4: “Two-thirds of the 115.6 pounds of white potatoes Americans eat in a year are in the form of French fries, potato chips and other frozen or processed potato products according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
When you break it down it’s not as bad as it might sound. Dividing 115.6 pounds by 365 days a year equals just 5 ounces of potato per day or the size of the small potato mentioned above.
Furthermore, 2009–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data confirmed that white potatoes provide only 4% and French-fries just 2% of an American’s total calories intake.
The survey also revealed that Americans average a mere 1.5% of their daily calories from French fries or 31 calories for a typical 2,080 calories/day. And just one in 8 males and one in 10 females consumes French fries on any given day. Even for those with the highest French fry intake (90th percentile of consumption or higher), men ate 134 calories and women 118 calories/day, the equivalent of half a small serving of fast-food fries.
The Bottom Line
A single ingredient, food or meal is not responsible for weight gain, nutrition status or health. The total diet over time is what matters. Singling out one food and blaming it for chronic disease or obesity is not only wrong but is counterproductive to encouraging healthful eating habits. Potatoes have long been a popular staple food in the American diet and deliver taste, nutrition and health benefits at an affordable price.