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Marion Nestle Calls Bullshit on New Potato Nutrition Guidelines

Following the Atkins craze of the early aughts, the spud fell from grace. Now, the government wants potatoes back on the menu—but nutritionists beg to differ.
Photo via Flickr user George Wesley

Cast your mind, dear reader, back to the time when the new millennium was in its infancy. The world was enlightened to the seductive beats of 50 Cent's "In Da Club" and became intimately acquainted with Lil Jon's impressively bedecked grill when Usher's star-studded Crunk&B track "Yeah!" dropped about a year later. It was an interesting time for pop culture, alright, as well as a confusing one for American eating habits, as the Atkins diet took hold with a vengeance. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone was crisping up bacon for breakfast, searing a steak for lunch, and tearing into a roasted chicken for dinner—and that just as quickly, classic side dishes such as the humble baked potato—verboten according to Atkins' low-carb rules—disappeared from America's collective plate.

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Who knows what it was about the early aughts that created such a fertile environment for the fad diet, originally popularized in the early 70s, to fasten its protein-heavy grip on our meals. But the plan, which emphasized the consumption of meat and banned the intake of simple carbs, certainly spelled doom for the humble spud—remember all those recipes for mashed cauliflower that claimed be to nearly indistinguishable from whipped potatoes? In any event, whether concretely related to Atkins-inspired dining or not, US consumption of potatoes declined by about 20 percent between 1997 and 2007. And white potatoes, while delicious, are generally regarded by nutritionists as pretty worthless, offering little in the way of nutrients but much in the way of blood sugar-raising carbs.

But the potato's reputation might be due for an upgrade, according to new recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. The Institute contends that "the nutrient profile of white potatoes is similar to that of other starchy vegetables," and believes that the spuds, previously ineligible for purchase using WIC—a food assistance program for low-income women and children—should now get the go-ahead. "The committee finds no direct evidence that consumption of white potatoes adversely affects health outcomes for WIC participants," the Institute's report says.

But some nutrition experts just aren't buying the Institute's change of course; as recently as 2006, the Institute weighed against potatoes' WIC eligibility. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU and author of several highly regarded books on food politics, points out on her blog that the Institute's flip-flop is a politically motivated one. Nestle says that the potato lobby—yes, you read that right—not only got Congress to overturn the USDA's restrictions on the use of white potatoes in school lunches, but also pressured the same two groups to add potatoes back onto WIC's roster. Nestle insists that white potatoes just aren't the best choice for families with limited means, who can only choose a set number of food items to purchase through WIC; she says those dollars would be better spent elsewhere.

"Potatoes are fine foods, but highly caloric when prepared in the usual ways," she writes on her blog. "Encouraging WIC recipients to choose leafy greens and other vegetables seems like a good idea."

As unlikely as it seems, potatoes and politics, these days, are bedfellows. Or, as Nestle puts it: "The take-home lesson is clear: lobbying works."