WASHINGTON — The potato lobby has been frustrated with U.S. Department of Agriculture policies in recent months, but it received some good news in March. The American Heart Association has certified Idaho potatoes as heart-healthy, permitting the spuds to bear the association’s heart-check mark.
Potato groups have been turning up the heat in recent months to try to convince USDA to rethink a Jan. 13 proposal that would restrict servings of white potatoes to comply with revised meal patterns and nutrition requirements for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.
The government would increase fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals, but it would reduce starchy vegetable servings, such as white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas to one cup per week, and eliminate these vegetables from the breakfast program.
“What they’re doing is really going to drive up the cost of school lunches,” warned Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, based in Idaho Falls, ID. “While school districts are suffering financially, now USDA wants to take one of the most affordable and more nutritious vegetables off the menu.”
This came just months after USDA banned white potatoes from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children program.
But in the latest twist, the American Heart Association certified fresh Idaho potatoes as a heart-healthy food on March 25 because they meet the criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.
Idaho potatoes are one of 800 products that bear the heart-check mark and have been screened and verified as meeting the criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.
The heart-check mark assures shoppers that they are making a smart and heart-healthy purchasing choice, the Idaho Potato Commission said in a May 17 press statement. The AHA designation covers all white potato varieties grown in Idaho.
It does not have an immediate effect on USDA’s move of encouraging less starchy vegetables, Frank Muir,president and chief executive officer of the commission, told The Produce News. “We are working with the USDA to get this resolved because we believe it’s inconsistent with its own Food Pyramid.
“We certainly will add this to the list of points that reinforce that potatoes should be part of every American’s balanced diet,” Mr. Muir added.
The group is also hoping to use the AHA nod to reinforce a similar message for the WIC program.
According to the commission, one medium Idaho potato (5.3 ounces) contains 110 calories, zero fat, zero cholesterol, 45 percent of the daily value of vitamin C and almost twice the potassium found in a banana, along with two grams of fiber.
“It’s not easy to get the heart-check mark,” added Mr. Blacker, who expressed frustration with the USDA policies. He raised concerns that kids may not eat enough vegetables when white potatoes are limited from school menus.