Low-carb diet is potato's blight


March 28, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The potato wants you to know the truth - even if it takes $4 million.

That's how much the U.S. Potato Board is spending on an 18-month campaign to persuade Americans that the high-carbohydrate, starchy vegetable is a healthy food choice, rather than one that's widening their hips.

"We like the potato," says Dr. George L. Blackburn, associate director of the nutrition division at the Harvard Medical School, whose endorsement of potatoes appears in one of the campaign's ads.

He's not just saying that: Blackburn eats five baked potatoes a week.

The high-protein, low-carbohydrate craze hasn't been easy on the spud. To growers' dismay, potato consumption is down, along with that of rice, pasta and cereal. More than 17 percent of American households report that they have someone on a low-carb diet. That spells a big-time threat to the potato.

The Denver-based trade group's campaign - "Get the skinny on America's favorite vegetable: The Healthy Potato" - is designed to teach consumers everything they always needed to know about potatoes (and certainly more).

The effort stems from a series of focus groups held last summer with about 70 women, including some who were "carb-averse," according to board spokeswoman Linda McCashion. Another 1,000 people filled out an Internet-based questionnaire.

Ninety-six percent of respondents didn't know the "main attributes" of potatoes. Only about a third thought they were rich in potassium, even though they have more of that mineral than broccoli, spinach and bananas. Only 6 percent believed potatoes were rich in vitamin C (a single serving has 45 percent of the recommended daily allowance).

McCashion says focus group participants were particularly struck when they saw a blown-up copy of the potato's Food and Drug Administration nutrition label; a medium-size potato weighing 5.3 ounces has 100 calories, with no fat, cholesterol or sodium.

"That's when they had the turnaround," she says.

Freed perhaps of some inner carbohydrate guilt, McCashion says, some people started fondly recounting potato experiences. One woman recalled mashing potatoes with her sister on holidays. Another said she now planned to make them for her son's homecoming from Iraq.

Potatoes, which are nearly 80 percent water, are considered native to the Andes Mountains and have been grown for at least 1,800 years. The Incas in Peru were rumored to have used them not just for food but to prevent rheumatism and even tell time (according to how long they took to cook). It's generally believed that the Spanish conquistadors introduced the vegetable to Europe in the 16th century.

By the early 1840s, nearly half the Irish population was eating potatoes almost exclusively. With the failure of the potato crop came the Great Irish Famine - and the mass migration of the Irish to America.

Though only a few hundred varieties are regularly grown, some 3,000 potato types exist - from the "nutty-flavored" Long White to the "earthy" Purple Peruvian.

Potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years not just because they are high in carbohydrates, but because, among carbohydrates, they rank high on the so-called glycemic index (GI). That means they break down rapidly during the digestive process, and the level of glucose in the blood spikes quickly.

Foods that score low on the glycemic index, by contrast, cause a more gradual increase in blood sugar and keep you feeling full longer - so you won't find yourself craving food as quickly.

The popular South Beach Diet, created by Florida cardiologist Arthur Agatston, relies in large part on GI rankings to figure out which carbs are "good" (apples, grapefruit, high-fiber cereal) and which aren't (crackers, cookies, pasta, white bread).

No type of potato is allowed during the diet's first phase, which lasts two weeks. During phase two, sweet potatoes are permissible - they are inherently a low-scoring GI food - though white potato varieties remain strongly frowned upon. (Sweet potatoes and white potatoes are botanically unrelated.)

Some dieticians counter that the glycemic index isn't a fair measure of nutritional value because foods are rarely eaten in isolation. "If I'm going to eat a baked potato, my guess is something's going to be on it," says Jackie Berning, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado and nutrition consultant for the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Indians.

And every time you throw on an extra - margarine, salsa, chili, a sprinkle of cheese - the potato's glycemic score changes. In combination with other foods, it may raise blood sugar less quickly.

Berning is perplexed by the anti-carb concerns from Atkins and other high-protein diets. People don't seem to understand, she says, that the body needs carbohydrates for fuel - and to fight fat. "The body cannot burn fat without the flame of carbohydrates," she says. "Any time you create a huge deficit of carbohydrates, you're using protein as an energy source, particularly from skeletal muscle."

In the simplest terms, she says, weight loss isn't about cutting out carbs. It's about cutting calories.

For its part, the U.S. Potato Board, which already has run pro-potato ads in The New York Times, USA Today and the Oscars edition of People magazine, doesn't want to get involved in the cultural diet wars. "We're trying to just take the high road and not get into the fray, and talk about our good qualities," says McCashion. "We are a healthy food, and we belong on the plate."

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