One of the proposed changes to the National School Lunch Program is to limit the amount of “starchy” vegetables like corn and potatoes to no more than two servings a week. Turns out that potatoes (mostly in the form of French fries) constitute 75% of the vegetables eaten in our school cafeterias. The idea is that cutting back on potatoes might compel kids to consume other vegetables. French fried carrots, presumably.
This proposal has unleashed a backlash from the potato industry and dietitians who lobby for them, who complain that potatoes are being unfairly maligned. They point out that potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. They’re also cheap and relatively shelf-stable (which is why the food industry loves them) and they’re one of the few vegetables that kids will reliably eat–probably because we deep fry them and slather them with ketchup.
The real question is: Why do we classify potatoes as vegetables?
Obviously, the food groups do not hew to botanical classifications. Tomatoes are lumped with the vegetables and not the fruits, for example. Nutritionally speaking, it makes much more sense to put potatoes and corn into the same food group as rice, bread, and pasta than it does to put them in with the vegetables. In terms of calorie density and the amount and quality of carbohydrates they contain, potatoes are far more similar to grains than they are to carrots, spinach, or broccoli.
Here’s an idea that should satisfy both the public health agencies and the potato lobby: Instead of stigmatizing potatoes as a “bad” vegetable, why not position them as a “good” starch?