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    Archive for the ‘potatoes’ Category

    Three Things I Want Recalled

    RawPotatoC-listers all over Tinseltown must be insanely jealous of eggs’ press agents.  If you were one of the millions of recalled Salmonella-tainted eggs over the past week and a half, you were everywhere — form the morning talk shows to CNN to thousands of blogs and tweets.

    Alas, all this recall business got me thinking about other things I would like taken back as of yesterday.

    1) Potato hate:

    Apparently, some nutritionists and Registered Dietitians are stuck in the “net carb” days of 2003 and consider potatoes to be a “no no”.  Some go as far as claiming “it doesn’t count as a vegetable.”  Magical realism and denial rolled into one big ball of “huh?”.  Pretending something “doesn’t count” if you don’t like it is the new black!

    Since, these nutritionists reason, most Americans eat potatoes in unhealthy ways, then it only makes sense to make a gross overgeneralization and claim the potato itself is not healthy.  Because, hey, why try to educate people when you can just keep a myth going?

    Truth is, when eaten in a healthy way (think baked, with its skin on, topped with some olive oil, salsa, or guacamole), potatoes provide fiber, vitamin C, and potassium.  This notion that a baked potato and an order of large fries are essentially the same thing is reductionist, simplistic, and absolutely inaccurate.  And, please, spare me the “but potatoes are a white food” speech.  So are bananas.  And cauliflower. And garlic.  And most onions.  And coconut meat.

    2) Food/Supermarket Scoring:

    In theory, it sounds helpful.  “Let’s score supermarket foods so people know what’s healthy and what’s not.”  Well, befriending your old high school friends on Facebook also sounded good in theory.

    Truth is, a lot of these systems either state the obvious (“broccoli is healthy!”) or are mired by huge flaws (“if a product is high in fat, it gets lots of points taken off, even if it’s something as simple and healthful as almond butter.”)

    This is something I have personal experience with.  For several months, I was a consultant on a food-grading system (one that, I must say, successfully escapes the pitfalls others plummet into).  Though I exerted a significant amount of effort helping developers come up with algorithms that would lead to an accurate system, it was impossible to not face limiting restrictions (“yes, take off a lot of points for long ingredient lists… oh, well, but, wait, here is a 100% whole grain sprouted bread with no added sugars made from 16 grains.”).  Still, that said, the developers did as comprehensive a job as possible.

    My main concern is that ttoo many variables that come into play.  For example — what’s “healthier”: a full-fat chocolate ice cream made from local, organic grass-fed milk or a reduced-fat ice cream that is lower in calories (with no artificial sweeteners or fake fats) but made from conventional dairy, possibly from cows injected with Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone?

    Food comparison programs and apps are at least more customizable and can capture more nuances than supermarket scoring systems like NuVal, which despite much hyperbole, have yet to be mplemented in more than a handful of stores.  For example, someone concerned with GMOs or a company’s labor practices can find a particular app for their interests, while a supermarket scoring system may only look at variables that may seem irrelevant to a consumer (for example, I don’t give grams of protein a second of thought when food shopping, whereas some supermarket scoring systems do).

    3) Overcomplicating the Issues:

    Find me one person whose weight did not drop (and health did not improve) by eating fewer calories, eating fewer processed foods, and amping up their physical activity.  Yes, there are a myriad of factors that can affect how well those behaviors play out (i.e.: hormonal changes, genetic makeup, etc.), but I don’t understand the need to reinvent a wheel that works (“eat negative calorie foods”, “drink 9 glasses of green tea every day”, “never EVER mix a carbohydrate with a protein”, “no carbohydrates for dinner”, “dairy products make you fat”, etc.).

    As I always ask the “calories don’t mean squat” groupies, please show me examples of people who gained weight as a result of eating fewer calories or individuals who lost weight by doubling their daily caloric intake (without any change in physical activity).

    Of course, the quality of what is consumed is of the utmost importance.  Whether one wants to gain or lose weight, the idea is to fill up with nutrients and other healthful components from whole foods (not chalky astronaut beverages in a can or an “energy bar” more fitting for a chemistry class experiment than your digestive system).

    Oh, PS: if anyone could offer me a time machine, I want to go back to the early 90s and immediately recall the fat-free era.


    Blue Potatoes Yield Green Water?

    purple_potatoesSome time ago I boiled some blue/purple potatoes and discovered the water had turned bright green.  Not being sure what that could possibly be (on store-bought spuds) I threw it all out.

    This summer, I grew my own blue potatoes, and the same thing happened.  I know these are clean and chemical free, since I grew them myself.  What caused the water to turn green, and is it safe?

    — Jennifer Armstrong
    Saratoga Springs, NY

    Ah, welcome to the fascinating (I’m not being fascicious, I truly think it’s fascinating) world of food science.

    Questions like yours are also great because they help me realize that the mandatory Introduction to Food & Food Science I had to take during my college education does come in handy!

    So, why did your blue potatoes yield green water?  Nope, it wasn’t a mutant Monsanto potato.  This just comes back to a very basic science concept — pH levels.

    Most tap water is slightly alkaline, which doesn’t jive well with the more acidic potato environment.  Alas, the blue pigment (caused by the presence of antioxidants known as anthocyanins) left a green tint in your water.

    If you’d like to prevent this next time, add a small amount of vinegar to your cooking water.

    While we’re on the subject of potatoes and the color green, I think it’s worth reminding everyone that while this example is no cause for concern, a potato with a green tint on it is.

    A green potato has high levels of solanine, which can result in unpleasant symptoms when consumed.


    Grading the Gurus: Walter Willett

    0901p88c-walter-willett-lWHO IS HE?

    Dr. Willett is the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and has been chair of the Harvard Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology since 1991.

    He is also the author of 2005’s Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy and 2007’s Eat Drink, and Weigh Less.


    Dr. Willett’s main points are:

    • Healthy fats should not be feared; they are an important part of a healthy diet.
    • A diet that gets more than 30 percent of calories from fat is perfectly okay as long as those fats are plant-based.
    • Potatoes and table sugar are essentially the same thing.  Potatoes should be limited, much like refined grains.
    • Nuts and legumes are preferred sources of protein.
    • Many dietary recommendations are based on politics (i.e.: “for calcium, eat dairy”) rather than a comprehensive understanding of science.
    • Exercise and physical activity are the foundation of health.

    Dr. Willett created his own version of the food pyramid, which perfectly illustrates these — and a few other — viewpoints.


    Dr. Willett is not afraid to think outside the box and, armed with substantial research-based evidence, question standard dietary advice (i.e.: “dairy is the best source of calcium.”).

    I greatly appreciate his strong defense of healthy fats, emphasis on whole grains and plant-based protein, and the importance he places on daily physical activity.

    Compared to other well-known male doctors who delve into nutrition matters, Dr. Willett is in no way gimmicky, does not endorse or partner up with questionable famous “experts”, and, in my opinion, is the one who most stays true to his convictions.  Refreshing — and admirable!

    His research experience is substantial; throughout his career, he has published approximately 1,100 articles dealing with nutrition and health matters in various peer-reviewed science journals.


    I wish Dr. Willett were more specific with his fat recommendations.

    For example, he groups all plant-based oils (including soy, olive, and peanut) in the “healthy fats” group.

    This troubles me because there is a clear hierarchy.  Soybean, safflower, and sesame seed oil are very high in omega-6 fatty acids and therefore not as healthy as olive and peanut (high in monounsaturated fat) or flax oil (high in omega-3 fatty acids).

    Similarly, Dr. Willett classifies all saturated fats equally, even though those in coconuts and cacao are healthier than the ones in full-fat dairy and red meat (especially from cows that subsist on corn).

    My main gripe with Dr. Willett’s dietary advice, though, is his view on potatoes.

    Per his food pyramid, potatoes are placed in the same “use sparingly” category as white bread, white rice, white pasta, soda, and sweets.  I find this to be grossly inaccurate and misleading.


    Dr. Willett is very familiar with — and knowledgeable about — nutrition issues.  Like Dr. Marion Nestle, his epidemiological background enables him to analyze and apply clinical studies appropriately, and his consideration of the relationship between food politics and dietary advice adds a powerful “oomph” to his message.

    Although I find his views on potatoes unnecessarily alarmist and extremist, his overall nutrition message is interesting, multi-layered, and scientifically solid.

    GRADE: A-


    Numbers Game: Answer

    891318One cup of cooked Swiss chard contains as much potassium as two medium bananas.

    FYI: The United States Department of Agriculture classifies medium bananas as those measuring anywhere from 7 to 8 inches.

    Score another point for dark, leafy green vegetables.

    Remember — they already get kudos for being good sources of calcium and vitamin K — two crucial nutrients for bone health.

    While most people equate potassium with bananas (and that’s not too off-the-mark; bananas are a good source of that mineral), other foods provide higher amounts.

    A medium banana contains approximately 420 milligrams of potassium (roughly ten percent of the daily requirement).  One cup of cooked Swiss chard, meanwhile, contributes 961 milligrams (slightly over a quarter of a day’s worth!).

    Take a look at these other potassium-rich foods that are often forgotten:

    • Spinach (1 cup, cooked): 835 milligrams
    • Lentils (1 cup, cooked): 731 milligrams
    • Edamame (1 cup): 676 milligrams
    • Nutritional yeast (3 Tablespoons): 640 milligrams
    • Baked potato (medium, with skin): 610 milligrams
    • Halibut (3 ounces, cooked): 490 milligrams

    A good list to keep in mind, particularly since the majority of adults in the United States do not meet daily potassium requirements.


    You Ask, I Answer: Toxins in Potatoes

    800px-Potato_sproutsOne of my nieces came back from a health and nutrition retreat last week and showed me some of the literature she was given.

    One page [was titled] “Common Foods That Cause Disease”.

    One food on the list was potatoes.  According to [the author of the article], potatoes should be avoided because they are full of toxins that accumulate in the body and cause cellular damage.

    It also said the skin is the most unhealthy part because it is full of these toxins.

    I eat potatoes (baked, with the skin on) twice a week.  Should I cut down?

    — Manuela Cedeño
    San Juan, PR

    Absolutely not.

    I certainly hope your niece did not plunk down a lot of money for this retreat, particularly if the rest of the information she was given was as inaccurate and unnecessarily alarming as this.

    It is true that potatoes — mainly the skins — contain two toxins known as chaconine and solanine.

    As with many other grains, fruits, and vegetables, potatoes have these toxins as defense mechanisms against pests.

    Humans are certainly not immune to these toxins.  A high enough dose will result in death.

    Let’s now do what the author of that article didn’t — leave sensationalism at the door and apply all this information to the appropriate context.

    1. The potatoes we buy at supermarkets have had their chaconine and solanine levels tested.  In order to be sold commercially, they must contain minimal amounts.
    2. When commercial potatoes develop high levels of these toxins, three very unpleasant things will tip you off.  They will have a green tint underneath, or on, the skin, already be sprouting (as shown in the accompanying photograph, and impart an off, bitter taste.
    3. Neither of these toxins accumulate in the body.  They are excreted (remember, one of our kidneys’ functions is to get rid of toxins!)
    4. Neither of these toxins have ever been linked to cellular damage of any kind.
    5. In the off chance that you consume a high amount of either of these toxins, you will experience diarrhea, vomiting, and dizziness.  Trust me, this is by no means a “silent health problem”
    6. As for that dose that can result in death — you would need to eat, in one sitting, approximately a pound and a half of potatoes that not only have that funky green color to them, but also taste very bitter.

    By all means keep eating baked potatoes twice a week.  As long as they are topped in a healthy manner (ie: two teaspoons of olive oil OR a tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese OR two tablespoons of salsa), they are a wonderful addition to any diet with their high fiber content along with several vitamins and minerals.


    Numbers Game: Answer

    web French Fries 4In 1960, 19 percent of potatoes consumed in the United States were done so in processed, lower-nutrition forms (fries, chips, and dehydrated ‘instant’ products).  In 2005, 67 percent of potatoes consumed in the United States were in one of those three processed ways.

    This is why I get so frustrated when I hear nutrition “experts” say statements like “potatoes are fattening,” or equate their nutritional profile to that of doughnuts and refined grains.

    As this statistic shows, the problem isn’t potato consumption, but rather the way this vegetable is mainly consumed.

    A simple baked potato, for example, packs in a significant amount of potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, and many B vitamins.  More importantly, if eaten with the skin on, it provides anywhere from 5 to 7 grams of fiber (depending on the size).

    Processed potatoes, meanwhile, are lower in all those nutrients — especially fiber — and higher in sodium (and, due to added fats, calories).


    Numbers Game: You Say Potato, I Say “Dehydrated Flakes In A Box”

    potato2In 1960, _____ percent of potatoes consumed in the United States were done so in processed, lower-nutrition forms (fries, chips, and dehydrated ‘instant’ products).  In 2005, _____ percent of potatoes consumed in the United States were in one of those three processed ways.

    a) 38/59
    b) 30/84
    c) 19/67
    d) 10/31

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Saturday for the answer.


    You Ask, I Answer: Food Pyramid

    Do corn and potatoes fall into the “grains” or “vegetable” category in the food pyramid?

    — Tom O’Farrell
    Boston, MA

    As far as the United States Department of Agriculture is concerned, potatoes and corn are members of the vegetable group.

    Remember, the food pyramid categorizes foods by nutrient profile.

    Although corn and potatoes are higher in carbohydrates than other vegetables, their vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content is more similar to that of vegetables than grains (we are talking about corn-on-the-cob and baked potatoes here, not Fritos and Pringles!)

    I understand the USDA’s decision from a simplicity standpoint, but it is not completely accurate in the case of corn, which is both a vegetable AND a grain, depending on how it is harvested.

    Although most people associate corn with processed junk (where it either shows up as high fructose corn syrup or corn oil in ingredient lists), it offers a good amount of nutrition when eaten fresh (off the cob) or simply popped and sprinkled with a little salt, parmesan cheese, or nutritional yeast for flavoring.

    For what it’s worth, a large ear of corn contributes 127 calories — along with vitamin C, phosphorus, manganese, potassium, and most of the B vitamins — to your day.


    No Wonder Potatoes Have A Bad Reputation

    Arby’s is offering a new side item on their menu — loaded potato bites (pictured at left).

    Uh oh, the term “loaded” is generally code for “artery and waist busting.”

    This is no exception.

    These “yummy pieces of fluffy potato, deep fried and loaded with cheddar cheese and bits of bacon” are accompanied with a ranch sour cream dipping sauce.

    A large side order (10 pieces) adds 707 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat (almost three quarters of a day’s worth), and 1,600 milligrams of sodium (two thirds of a day’s worth) to your tray.

    The ranch dip, meanwhile, contributes an additional 158 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 277 milligrams of sodium.

    This is calorically equal to two orders of large fries at McDonald’s.


    You Ask, I Answer: Potatoes/Walter Willett’s Healthy Eating Pyramid

    I don’t really know anything about the science of nutrition, so I won’t state an opinion either way on the potato issue. But have you read Willett’s book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy?

    I think the pyramid is misleading by placing potatoes up there without an asterisk or something, but he does go into detail in Eat, Drink and Be Healthy about studies showing that potatoes cause a spike in blood sugar in the same way that refined grains do.

    Again, not a scientist so I can’t evaluate the merit of the studies and whatnot, but I’d suggest you check it out so you can decide if you agree.

    Personally, I like potatoes a lot…but I mostly like them in less healthy ways (not crazy about the skin, like them mashed, etc), so I try to limit them.

    Working at Harvard School of Public Health as I do, it’s easy to feel a bit oppressed by the pervasiveness of Willett and the Healthy Eating Pyramid, though!

    — Daphne (last name unknown)
    Via the blog

    Your question brings up several issues worth mentioning (by the way, I realize you are not in favor of the “potatoes are just as bad as sugar” argument, so this is not a “response” to you).

    I agree with Dr. Willett on many nutrition standpoints, but the potato issue is one I see completely differently.

    I have not read Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, but am familiar with his reasoning for placing potatoes at the top of his Healthy Eating Pyramid along with white flour, sugar, and candy.

    Willett bases that decision on potatoes’ high glycemic index (basically, the degree to which they raise your blood sugar upon consumption).

    The problem with that reasoning is that it only truly applies if a potato is eaten entirely by itself.

    Have it as a side dish to a high-protein food (salmon, chicken, tempeh, etc.), top it with a little fat, and the glycemic index decreases.

    Since a potato’s skin is a good source of fiber, eating it helps lower the glycemic index.

    As I have mentioned before, a potato is not a potato is not a potato.

    Dehydrated potato flakes from a box that turn into instant mashed potatoes are very different from French fries, which are very different to a baked potato cooked in its skin, topped with olive oil, and eaten in conjuction with grilled salmon.

    Besides, the glycemic index is not a very accurate way to determine what foods are healthy.

    If you go by it, ice cream is a “better” snack than watermelon.

    While it is helpful for people living with diabetes, I don’t see it as the most useful tool for weight loss — it leaves calories out of the equation!

    If you were looking to cut calories, would you have half a cup of ice cream as a post-dinner snack or a cup of watermelon?


    You Ask, I Answer: Potato Consumption

    While a baked potato with the skin left on is a healthy choice, the question is: how do the majority of North Americans eat their potatoes?

    — Kate (last name unknown)
    Via the blog

    Great question.

    Here is what the most recent figures from the United States Department of Agriculture reveal.

    In 2002, the “average American” consumed 126 lbs. of potatoes.

    Of these 126 lbs., approximately 24 came exclusively from potato chips (the average American consumed 6 lbs. of potato chips in 2002; it takes 4 pounds of potatoes to make 1 pound of potato chips).

    Frozen potatoes (mainly french fries) totaled 61 pounds.

    Some simple addition reveals that french fries and potato chips make up two thirds of total average potato consumption!

    Not exactly the picture of health.

    We are still missing some vital information, though.

    Although baked potatoes offer a good deal of nutrition (Harvard’s School of Public Health Chair Walter Willett’s claim that potatoes and candy bars are basically nutritionally identical is ludicruous), this survey does not tell us how people are eating them.

    Mainly, how many calories they are being topped with. A pad of butter? Three tablespoons?

    What we certainly know is that such a high consumption of French fries doesn’t spell out good news for our waistlines.

    While a nutritious side dish consisting of medium baked potato topped with a tablespoon of olive oil (that’s quite a bit!) adds up to 280 calories, a large order of fries at McDonald’s contributes 570.


    In The News: Revising the Food Pyramid

    The folks over at the Harvard School of Public Health — led by Walter Willett — don’t think the traditional USDA food pyramid (officially known as MyPyramid) doles out the best advice.

    So, they proactively designed their own version — The Healthy Eating Pyramid.

    You can see a nicely drawn PDF version by clicking on the link above.

    I prefer this version over the USDA’s, but have a few critiques.

    Although I like the inclusion of “daily exercise and weight control” at the base, I would prefer that section be titled “daily exercise and portion control.”

    Additionally, the “healthy fats/oils” category should place more of an emphasis on fats higher in Omega-3 (i.e: olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed) and less on ones offering very high Omega-6 levels (ie: soy and corn).

    As I have discussed in the past, an improper Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio has its share of health implications.

    Lastly, I strongly disagree with the inclusion of potatoes in the “eat sparingly” pyramid tip (accompanied by red meat, refined grains, sugary snacks, and salt).

    It is one thing to eat potatoes in their nutritionally void skinless, deep fried version.

    However, a baked potato, eaten with its skin, is a great source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate, and magnesium.

    Clearly, current obesity and diabetes rates can not be blamed on the ingestion of healthily prepared potatoes.

    Your thoughts?


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