This baby potato and fenugreek stir fry makes a great filling for a pita bread sandwich. (Reshma Seetharam)

This baby potato and fenugreek stir fry makes a great filling for a pita bread sandwich. (Reshma Seetharam)

Are potatoes vegetables? A national committee is hashing that out

The debate has sparked a national debate. Sen. Maria Cantwell signed a letter opposing reclassifying potatoes as grains.

  • Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
  • Thursday, April 4, 2024 12:17pm
  • Food & Drink

By Ellen Dennis / The Spokesman-Review

Boil ‘em. Mash ‘em. Stick ‘em in a stew.

Feed them to your picky toddler who won’t eat anything else. Steal them off your partner’s plate after insisting you’re not hungry. Throw them in the oven and top them with the works: chili, shredded cheese, bacon bits, sour cream, green onions. Chef’s kiss.

Potatoes mean a lot of things to a lot of people. In 2019, the average U.S. resident wolfed 50 pounds worth of spuds in a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s only natural that a debate about whether potatoes should be considered vegetables has sparked national attention in recent months.

Globally, China and India are the main producers of potatoes. In the United States, Idaho tops the ranking of leading potato producing states, with an annual production of over 7 million tons in 2023. Washington was the next biggest producer with nearly 5 million tons in 2023.

The spud mindset has shaped the identity of many Idahoans who drive cars with license plates that read “FAMOUS POTATOES” on the bottom. The country’s potato capital is so proud of its spuds that it’s even home to what it says is the world’s only potato hotel, a 28-foot-long beauty of a potato-shaped mound outside of Boise that costs $300 to rent out for a spuddy overnight stay.

In the United States, the government sorts food into five categories: dairy, fruit, grains, protein and vegetables. Potatoes are currently classified as a vegetable. But a government agency called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is considering reclassifying potatoes as a grain when it updates its dietary guidelines for 2025.

On Friday, U.S. senators from Washington and Idaho joined a group of 12 other national lawmakers to send a letter to that advisory committee, urging it to keep potatoes classified as vegetables. The letter was addressed to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; James Risch, R-Idaho; and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, all signed the letter opposing reclassifying potatoes as grains.

“Since the inception of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has classified potatoes correctly as a vegetable,” the letter reads. “There is no debate about the physical characteristics of the potato and its horticultural scientific classification. Unlike grains, white potatoes are strong contributors of potassium, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fiber.”

The group of 14 senators argued reclassifying potatoes as grains would confuse consumers and retailers.

The letter was spurred by a docket released by the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee calling for input about reclassifying potatoes as a grain.

Agricultural interest groups in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and other states have expressed opposition to reclassifying potatoes. If the government chooses to classify potatoes as grains, the change would leave the future of other starchy vegetables up in the air, said Matt Harris, the director of governmental affairs for the Washington State Potato Commission.

“This seems very odd,” he said. “That you’d want to take a vegetable — everybody knows that a potato is a vegetable — and remove it from one category and put it into another category. … The question then begs: Why are sweet potatoes not classified as a grain? Why are carrots not classified as a grain?”

At the center of the spud identity crisis lies one central question: Is it harmful to classify potatoes as a vegetable?

Those who say “yes” argue potatoes are nowhere near as nutrient-dense as other vegetables, and officially classifying them as such misleads people and gives them a spot on hundreds of thousands of public school lunch trays that would be better filled with something like broccoli or Romaine lettuce.

In a study, Harvard’s School of Public Health compared potatoes’ effects on blood sugar to that of a can of soda or a handful of jelly beans.

“The roller-coaster-like effect of a high dietary glycemic load can result in people feeling hungry again soon after eating,” the study reads, “which may then lead to overeating.”

Those who say keeping potatoes classified as a vegetable is the right thing to do laud the nutritional offerings of the tubers.

“Research shows that serving potatoes can encourage individuals to eat other vegetables when paired together on the plate,” reads a letter sent to the U.S. government by the National Potato Council. “Conversely, any decrease in recommendations for servings of potatoes could potentially decrease vegetable consumption further.”

The National Potato Council argued in the letter that potatoes offer more of a nutritional punch than wheat and other grains, noting that potatoes have more potassium than bananas.

A close reading of the nutrition facts label on a bag of russet potatoes shows that one potato contains about 110 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein and 2 grams of dietary fiber. It also contains 15% of the suggested daily intake of potassium, 30% of the suggested daily vitamin C intake, 10% of the suggested vitamin B6 intake and 6% of the suggested daily iron intake.

For comparison, a cup of raw broccoli contains about 31 calories, 6 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of protein, 135% of the suggested daily vitamin C intake, 10% of the suggested vitamin B6 intake, 4% of the suggested daily calcium intake and 4% of the suggested daily magnesium intake.

State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is a farmer from Eastern Washington who says he has represented the state’s potato lobby for his entire political career. He called the conversation about reclassifying potatoes as a grain “idiotic and ignorant,” saying any government agency pushing to do so should be defunded.

“They have an ax to grind, a vendetta against potato producers,” Schoesler said. “Don’t they have something better to do?”

Schoesler pointed to a Washingtonian who ate only potatoes for 60 days to prove that spuds pack enough nutritional girth to power a grown man for two months.

For two months in 2010, Chris Voigt ate 20 potatoes every day and nothing else. Voigt, the executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, reported he came out of the other side of his spud-fueled journey a healthier man.

Voigt lost 21 pounds and his cholesterol went down by 67 points, he reported. Blood tests indicated his blood sugar went down and his iron, calcium and protein levels stayed the same or got better.

“I always said there is no one single food that meets all your nutritional needs, but if you were to pick one, potatoes would be a good one,” Voigt told spudman.com.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office also wants the potato to remain a vegetable by nutritional definition, spokesperson Mike Faulk said.

“Reclassification would create challenges for the industry, consumer confusion and would appear to conflict with nutritional science,” Faulk wrote in a statement.

The jury is still out on whether the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will change the potato’s classification or keep it as-is. The committee meets every five years to update the U.S. dietary guidelines.

But identity politics aside, one thing’s for certain: A spud by any other name would smell (and taste) as sweet.

Ellen Dennis’ work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

Ellen Dennis: reporterdennis@gmail.com

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