Potato industry fights back after anti-chip study

Potato marketers resent a recent Harvard weight-loss study that encourages Americans to bag the spuds, but pistachio growers are nuts about the study’s findings, according to a story in USA Today.

The study, released last Thursday by the Harvard School of Public Health, linked eating potatoes with gaining weight. Yogurt and nuts, on the other hand, were associated with losing weight.

Western Pistachio, a pistachio growers association, has already started work on a new marketing campaign touting the findings. But the study is a cause for alarm to potato growers, as it faults even boiled and baked potatoes for people’s expanding waistlines — not just chips and fries.

But Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple, says taters shouldn’t bear all the blame.

“Usually when people are eating mashed potatoes, they’re eating big steaks right beside them,” she said. “And then not exercising.”

What’s more, Idaho Potato Commission President Frank Muir says one of the scientists who did the study —Walter Willett— had an anti-potato bias six years ago when he published a food pyramid on his website.

“He’s got potatoes right at the top with soft drinks,” Muir said.

But Willett says his previous studies had nothing to do with weight gain. And he notes the new study mirrors his earlier work showing potato starch is broken down very quickly into glucose.

“We do have a history of pointing out relationships with potatoes and diabetes risks — which in some sense is more dangerous,” he said.

One crisis PR expert said the Harvard researchers have wrongfully demonized potatoes.

“It’s just irresponsible on Harvard’s part,” says Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, who was eating a bag of potato chips when reached at his office. “Whenever a study like this one comes out, it creates a real problem for an industry.

“The vegetable has done nothing wrong,” he said.

Still, some food marketers are responding:

Potatoes — The Idaho Potato Commission will launch a television marketing campaign with fitness guru Denise Austin beginning in September, that delivers “a real straightforward message: Potatoes are good for your heart,” Muir said.

“The American Heart Association has endorsed Idaho potatoes as a heart-healthy food.”

Austin could not be reached for comment, but Muir said she orders potatoes every time they dine together.

Yogurt — National Yogurt Association Executive Director Elise Cortina said the group was “delighted” to see the study. But she said it won’t change yogurt brands’ marketing plans, as the benefits of yogurt are already well known.

Nuts — While growers of almonds and other nuts are also excited about the study’s findings, the pistachio growers group is using it in a new marketing campaign involving partnerships with the USA Water Polo Team and Miss California.

“We’ve enlisted icons of both fitness and beauty to help educate people about the great nutritional findings about pistachios,” said Judy Hirigoyen, director of marketing for Western Pistachio.

“You don’t hear so much about pistachios,” she said. “Well that’s about to stop — they’re coming out of their shell.”

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