Potato Proponents Speak Up for Study-Scarred Spud

"Girl, I think my bud gettin' big."

Defenders of America’s most popular vegetable are deep in damage-control mode following the release of a highly publicized study blaming potatoes for long-term weight gain.

Among its many spud-disparaging findings, the study by Harvard University researchers contends that people who eat an extra serving per day of potatoes — fried, baked, mashed, whatever — pack on more pounds over time than those who drink an extra can of sugar-sweetened soda.

That news may once have spawned an Atkins-like crisis for the potato, still working to recover its image (and consumption numbers) from the hit it took back in 2004, when the low-carb diet was at its peak.

Now, though, the potato industry seems better prepared to take the heat.

“If eating potatoes was so bad for you … I’d be dead by now,” said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. To showcase the versatile veggie’s nutritious qualities — and counter negative publicity — Voigt spent two months last fall on an all-potato diet, lowering his cholesterol and shedding 21 pounds.

“People should not be afraid of potatoes,” Voigt said. And based on his own spud experiences, Voigt attests the Harvard researchers’ “arguments are downright wrong.”

The U.S. Potato Board, too, slammed the study, saying it “perpetuates unfortunate myths and misconceptions.”

“Singling out the potato as a cause of weight gain is misleading and contrary to existing research,” said Tim O’Connor, board president and CEO. “Fresh potatoes are frequently victims of guilt by association,” he added, noting that the calories weight-watchers should worry about are traditional baked tater toppings like sour cream, butter, and bacon.

Not so, according to the researchers from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. Even though potato chips and French fries are slightly worse offenders, fresh potatoes spell diet disaster, as well.

The study does include some common-sense weight-loss advice, like cutting back on booze and highly processed foods. But a growing number of nutrition experts are taking issue with the study’s half-baked conclusions and research methodology, based on self-reported data compiled over a 12- to 20-year period.

To the credit of journalists covering the study, concerns were fairly well reflected. But when are brief, below-the-fold comments any match for sensational headlines like “Potatoes can add plenty to waistline” and “You Say Potato, Scale Says Uh-Oh“?

“Whenever a study like this one comes out, it creates a real problem for an industry,” crisis PR specialist Gene Grabowski, SVP of Levick Strategic Communications, explained to USA Today. “It’s just irresponsible on Harvard’s part.”

So PR professionals, get your damage-control plans in order. Because next time, it may be your turn to be the potato.