What’s the most well-known food combination? “Meat and potatoes”are generally the stand-in for “bread and butter” as shorthand for the staples we need to function.

Unfortunately, in real life that combo too often translates as burgers and fries, rather than more nutritious protein-and-carbohydrate variations that dietary and medical authoritiesalike would prefer Americans to choose. That has prompted discussion among officials at the Food and Nutrition Board (part of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine) to consider removing potatoes from the list of preferred vegetables eligible for inclusion in WIC food packages, a recommendation that could be extended to school lunch programs.

That prompted Bruce M. Chassy, University of Illinois professor of Food Microbiology, and Henry I. Miller, physician and molecular biologist, founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA and author of “The Frankenfood Myth,” to pen a caustic article titled, “USDA’s War on Potatoes.” The piece is quite humorous yet ultimately unconvincing.

Let’s start with the humor.

“Government bureaucrats can be dumber than Mr. Potato Head,” Chassy and Miller write. “USDA has mounted an inexplicable attack on one of America’s best-loved and most-consumed staples: the potato [which 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.”

So far, quite funny.

The authors—and despite their impressive scientific credentials, let’s remember they’re not necessarily experts on either dietary science or the socio-economic factors influencing obesity—go on to point out that potatoes contain no fat and are relatively low in calories.

“A boiled or baked potato supplies about the same nutrition as a banana,” they note,“though bananas have a much better image because they’re a fresh fruit that is seldom fried or smothered in unhealthy toppings. (Did we hear a distant voice say, banana split?)”

Let’s review: Potatoes and bananas are about equal, nutritionally speaking, but bananas are generally eaten fresh without high-fat toppings or high-calories condiments, while potatoes are almost never eaten without high-fat toppings or high-calories condiments.

May I politely point out to the distinguished scientists that they just made USDA officials’ argument for them?

Instead, the authors launch into a rant attacking the proposal to remove potatoes from the recommended vegetables list (they call it “blacklisting”) and claim not to understand why the government would even consider interfering with the nutritional choices of a federally funded school lunch program.


“The Institute of Medicine’s true rationale for condemning this popular vegetable is unclear,” they state,“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.”

You think?

When was the last time you saw a teen-ager (or anyone else, for that matter) eating potatoes that weren’t french-fried, smothered in cheese and/or butter and/or bacon bits or otherwise ladled with gravy or other toppings that added hundreds of additional calories? A large bag of fast-food fries—only six ounces!—is almost 600 calories, for example, and nearly half of those are from fat—not from potatoes.

Chassy and Miller note that, “If bureaucrats are concerned about calorie-dense potato recipes, they could make recommendations about the way potatoes are cooked and served.” Forget bureaucrats. I’d be interested to hear what high-end chefs might recommend in the way of low-cal, low-fat recipes that could supplant fries and cheese-smothered potatoes on typical restaurant menus or at-home dinner tables.

Because that’s the point of considering whether potatoes should or shouldn’t continue to be integral components in school lunch menus or in WIC food packages. Nobody disputes that plain potatoes are quite nutritious (a good source of both fiber and vitamin C, for instance). But it’s ridiculous for two high-profile scientists and academics to argue that, “The potato has been a staple of the Western diet since it was introduced to European consumers several hundred years ago. Therefore, the widespread and intensive daily consumption of potatoes antedates the obesity epidemic by centuries.”

C’mon, guys. That’s not the point. We don’t eat potatoes the way they were consumed hundreds of years ago, as boiled chunks of starch in soup or as a cheap source of calories to accompany the scraps of meat poor people could afford back in the good old days of Charles Dickens’ era.

As Chassy and Miller, note, “Obesity is far too complex and multifactorial to be amenable to such simplistic and draconian efforts as getting rid of potatoes.”

Indeed it is, and the two authors helpfully add that, “Learning good eating habits, exercising, getting enough sleep and reducing stress all contribute to effective weight management.”

Yeah, and we’d all be better off if we cut down on television and computer time, spent more quality time with family and loved ones and were more generous with our contributions to charitable causes. Easily stated; less easily accomplished.

For Chassy and Miller, the answer is simple: “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.”

But doesn’t that teaching process involve dietary guidance? Isn’t that what USDA is trying to achieve? Nobody’s stopping kids from heading off to the nearest fast-food stop to wolf down fries after school. But is it really counterproductive to attempt to limit such choices while they’re still in a learning environment?

›› To review the Chassy-Wesson article, log onto http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/print/266075

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator