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Potatoes Defended as ‘America’s Favorite Vegetable’ After Study on Fat

Chris Voigt lost 21 pounds in two months on an all-potato diet just to prove spuds don’t make you fat, he said.

“People should not be afraid of potatoes,” Voigt, 46, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said yesterday in an interview. “They’re one of the few foods that are so good for you that you could live off of them.”

That’s not what a Harvard University analysis found. A report published June 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that forgoing a 1-ounce bag of potato chips each day in favor of yogurt can save almost a pound of weight gain every four years.

The findings were given less-than-glowing reviews by potato producers and marketers reached at the National Potato Council’s summer meeting in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Tim O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Potato Board, the industry’s marketing organization, said the study conflicts with the conclusions of many others that people can eat any food, including French fries and potato chips, in moderation.

“That’s science that’s stood the test of time,” O’Connor said. “It’s frustrating when groups come forward with opinions very outside where the majority are and we become one of the few that’s in the target of the bull’s-eye. Potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable, America’s favorite side dish. We continue to be one of the largest-selling items in the grocery store.”

$3.49 Billion Crop

The U.S. potato crop was valued at $3.49 billion in 2010, making it the sixth most-valuable crop after corn, soybeans, hay, wheat and cotton, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. About 10 percent of U.S. production goes into chips.

Americans are forecast to eat 109.9 pounds of potatoes a person this year, down 21 percent from a decade ago, according to the department. Idaho, the producer of one-third of potatoes grown in the U.S., harvests about 12 billion pounds each year, said Frank Muir, president and chief executive officer of the Idaho Potato Commission.

Potato chips weren’t alone as a target of the Harvard researchers. The single worst food for weight gain may be French fries, according to their review. The researchers found fries contributed to an extra 3.35 pounds every four years.

“These findings underscore the importance of making wise food choices in preventing weight gain and obesity,” senior study author Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said in a statement. “The idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods is a myth that needs to be debunked.”

Three Studies

The researchers analyzed three previous studies. The report examined lifestyle concerns and weight gain every four years over 12 to 20 years. The review included 120,877 U.S. women and men who at the start of the studies weren’t obese and were free of chronic diseases.

O’Connor and Voigt said potato consumption declined in 2004, when the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet was at the height of its popularity.

“There’s still a very negative opinion of carbohydrates,” Voigt said. “We’re still trying to recover from that, and we’re trying to do our best to get beyond it.”

The Atkins diet advocates increasing protein intake by eating unlimited amounts of meat and substantial servings of eggs and cheese, while discouraging consumption of grains and potatoes. About 9 percent of the U.S. population said it was following a low-carb diet early in 2004, with that number falling to less than 4 percent at the end of that year, consultant NPD Group said in 2005.

Staying in shape “comes down to eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits, low-fat proteins, making sure you’re exercising every day,” Muir, of the Idaho Potato Commission, said in an interview. “If every American did that, we wouldn’t be talking about obesity or the next fad diet.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Martin in Washington at emartin21@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net

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