An influential federal committee that sets the country’s nutritional guidelines is considering reclassifying the potato as a member of the grain family, ostensibly as a strategy to combat a growing obesity epidemic. Instead, the action would confuse consumers and potentially rob Americans of affordable calories at a time food insecurity is spiking.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provide Food Pyramid-like direction for better health, are updated every five years by a joint committee of the federal departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. More than a recommendation, their work shapes the distribution of benefits including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and helps form menus that determine what goes on a child’s tray in school cafeterias.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington recently joined 13 other senators to “strongly urge” the committee not to reclassify the potato, praising the benefits of the tuber. They noted grain and potato trade groups alike oppose the move.

“Unlike grains, white potatoes are strong contributors of potassium, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fiber,” the senators wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “ … If potatoes were to be reclassified, consumers would miss out on vital nutrients.”

The impact on Washington’s economy — a state that produces 29 billion helpings of potatoes for people globally each year — would be palpable. Cantwell is right to defend the spud against this line of attack.

There’s no requirement that botany and public health policy overlap 100% of the time. But they should not diverge to the point of absurdity. The nation’s nutritional guidelines should have sufficient flexibility to note a potato’s strengths and weaknesses — continued advocacy for healthier, nonfried preparation, say — without wholesale removal from its proper food group.


It may be starchy. It may lack the nutritional complexity of its fellow vegetables like broccoli. But the potato is a vegetable. To abandon its botanical identity is a befuddling way to discourage consumption and is likely to reduce the credibility of the guidelines.

Potatoes also provide calories at a lower cost to families at a time when more than 44 million Americans reported living in households where getting enough food for everyone was difficult, according to the federal Department of Agriculture. Guiding Americans’ diets is important, but hunger remains an urgent issue.

School districts across the nation face a double whammy from inflation and the end of pandemic aid for meals. Ninety-nine percent of nutrition directors surveyed by the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy group, reported rising costs were either a significant or moderate challenge to their operations. Schools already follow strict guidelines that ensure school meals are healthy; potatoes provide a lower-cost vegetable that helps the districts stay on budget.

If the country is to overcome obesity, it will do so with simple, straightforward instructions that help Americans build a better diet. Reclassifying the potato is, at best, an eye-roll-inducing exercise. At worst, it could erode confidence in America’s public health institutions.

Editorial by The Seattle Times


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