Politics & Policy

USDA’s War on Potatoes

When it comes to food, the government should not dictate our choices.

Government bureaucrats can be dumber than Mr. Potato Head. The USDA has mounted an inexplicable attack on one of Americans’ best-loved and most-consumed staples: the potato.

Never mind that this venerable vegetable is one of the world’s leading crops — behind only corn, rice, and wheat — with 315 million metric tons produced in 2005, about 7 percent of which was grown in this country. Europeans consume daily more than a half-pound, and Americans about a third of a pound.

Potatoes sometimes get a bad rap as junk food because they lend themselves so well to being fried or served with wonderfully rich and unctuous additives — smothered in cheesy toppings and butter and sprinkled with crumbled bacon, for example — but the tuber itself contains no fat and is relatively low in calories. A boiled or baked potato supplies about the same nutrition as a banana, though bananas have a much better image because they’re a fresh fruit that is seldom fried or smothered in unhealthy toppings. (However, did we hear a distant voice say, “banana split”?)

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recently recommended that the potato should be, in effect, blacklisted from the variety of starchy vegetables to be included in the federally funded, state-provided Women, Infants and Children (WIC) welfare program. The proposed ban on potatoes is now trickling down into school-lunch programs, forcing them to turn to more expensive and less well-accepted substitutes.

The IOM’s true rationale for condemning this popular vegetable is unclear, but ostensibly it wants to increase dietary diversity. Maybe they think potatoes are always eaten fried, and therefore qualify as a junk food whose elimination might stem the rising tide of the obesity epidemic. But if they are concerned about calorie-dense potato recipes, the bureaucrats could make recommendations about the way potatoes are cooked and served — cheese, for example, although a nutritious and recommended part of a varied and healthy diet, is also high in calories and should be consumed with that in mind. Maybe the IOM bureaucrats are simply not as expert as we assume they are.

Some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, and some clearly have too many calories and too much fat to be eaten frequently or in large amounts. But the potato has been a staple of the Western diet since it was introduced to European consumers several hundred years ago, when Spanish explorers brought potatoes from the Americas. Therefore, the widespread and intensive daily consumption of potatoes antedates the obesity epidemic by centuries.

It’s worth pointing out that potatoes are often served to recovering patients in hospitals; they’re a comfort food that is easy to digest. They frequently appear in military and institutional meals. Potatoes prepared in various ways are a staple of school lunches, which are often designed by registered dieticians. Menu planners know that potatoes are well-liked, while other vegetables often end up in the garbage can or fed to the golden retriever. (Try offering Brussels sprouts to middle-school students; they’re likely to end up as projectiles.)

The biggest problem with the IOM-USDA approach to attacking obesity is that it fails to grasp the causes of the epidemic or to address them. To begin with, there is ample research to show that children and young adults will compensate for the loss of potatoes or other desired foods by finding “satisfying” alternatives. And their unsatiated desire for foods like potatoes may be satisfied with Krispy Kremes or Twinkies. A more effective approach would be to implement a proactive program that teaches smart diet choices. And the bureaucrats need to keep in mind that young people acquire their eating habits first from their home, second from their peers, and last from schools and institutions.

Obesity is far too complex and multifactorial to be amenable to such simplistic and draconian efforts as getting rid of potatoes. The genetic underpinnings of obesity probably originate with the fundamental evolutionary pressures that have shaped humans. As a species, we are programmed to accumulate fat against the possibility that food will not be available for a prolonged period, a basic survival mechanism that drives over-eating. In animals, there is even emerging evidence that overweight mothers produce overweight children. We often see obesity running in human families. This is due not only to the genes that families share, but also to a phenomenon called epigenetic programming: the modification of genetic information by environmental factors. Nurture plays a role as well. Learning good eating habits, exercising, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress all contribute to effective weight management. In the long term, weight-control diets and pills seldom work any better than banning potatoes; there’s an old quip about having lost 500 pounds — 20 pounds at a time, regaining the weight in between.

People used to say, “Hey, it’s a free country.” But since then, we’ve moved more toward a paternalistic nanny state. When it comes to food, with very few exceptions, the government should not dictate our choices. Limitations on sugar-laden soft drinks, French fries, and potato chips are a preemption of our right of self-determination and undermine efforts to teach young people that the individual is ultimately responsible for what he chooses to consume. The cure for the obesity epidemic is not government diktats; Thomas Jefferson observed that “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” That includes the occasional buttery, cheesy baked potato.

— Bruce M. Chassy is a Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.


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