Food Science Professor Defends the Healthy Potato

Contact: Mary Ellen Camire, (207) 581-1627; George Manlove, (207) 581-3756

ORONO — As Maine’s congressional delegation and the Maine Potato Board lobby the USDA to rescind its recent decision to exclude the potato from eligible fruits and vegetables available to WIC program participants, a UMaine food science and human nutrition professor is offering science-based evidence in support of potatoes as an inexpensive, healthy food choice.

Potato researcher and professor Mary Ellen Camire suspects those who think the potato unhealthy may be focusing on the oil-fried French fries and potato chips rather than boiled, baked or microwaved potato as a dietary staple.

“I think that many people consider potatoes to be fattening, but there are so many healthful ways to prepare them, not just fried,” she says.

Potatoes are particularly high in vitamin C and are a good source of several B vitamins and potassium, she says. The skins provide substantial dietary fiber and many compounds in potatoes, particularly pigmented colored potatoes, contribute to antioxidant activity.

Potatoes, she argued in a recent paper on the health benefits of the maligned tuber for journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, are a carbohydrate-rich, energy-providing food with little fat. Potato protein content is fairly low but has an excellent biological value of 90-100.

The justification for banning potatoes from the Women, Children and Infants program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “just isn’t there,” says Camire, who extensively researches potatoes and continues nutritional evaluation of potato varieties with UMaine Cooperative Extension specialists. “I understand why people got confused and excluded potatoes, but it’s not founded in scientific evidence.”

Potatoes are grown around the world and are a viable, nutritional and inexpensive food, particularly for underprivileged people, she says.

“There aren’t many people who don’t like potatoes,” she says. “Buying fresh potatoes at farmers markets is a great way to feed a family cheaply while supporting local farmers.”