Hot Potato

Skinned by the Atkins Craze, the Potato Industry Fights Back.

In the years B.C. (before carbohydrates) dieters considered a low-fat diet the key to losing weight. But this is 2004 A.D.—which may as well represent the year of the Atkins Diet—and millions upon millions of Americans are eschewing low-fat meals in favor of the Atkins regimen, a low-carbohydrate, fat-rich plan popularized by the media and impressive word-of-mouth. Many foods recognized as being high in carbohydrates have fallen out of favor, replaced in the grocery cart by red meat, cheese and other protein-rich items. Among those foods is the humble potato, whose popularity peaked in the late 1990s before “lo-carb” became an omnipresent sales tool. In response, the U.S. Potato Board (USPB) recently launched a new nutrition education program designed to polish the potato’s image.

While the potato isn’t the first food to contend with a temporary public perception problem—“the incredible edible egg,” now back in vogue, being a prime example—it still is exasperating for the American potato industry, which is concentrated in Pacific Northwest states like Idaho, Washington and Oregon. According to ACNielsen, a market research firm that analyzes scanning data from supermarkets and other retail outlets, consumers spent fewer dollars in 2003 on carbohydrate-heavy foods like potatoes, rice and white bread compared to the year-earlier period. Linda McCashion, Vice President of Public Relations for the Denver-based USPB, says she’s almost bewildered every time she hears a pundit telling the public to avoid potatoes. “How can they say that? It’s such a healthy food,” she contends.

To counter the Atkins-related bashing the USPB has allocated $4.4 million for an 18-month public relations campaign designed to get Russets and Reds back on the public’s radar screen. “The overriding message,” begins McCashion, “is the surprisingly powerful nutrition profile of potatoes. I say surprising because when we went to focus groups last summer to develop the messaging we realized that people weren’t aware that the potato has 45 percent of your daily value of Vitamin C, 21 percent of your potassium, plus fiber and other nutrients.”

Ray Meiggs, a North Carolina grower and the USPB’s Domestic Marketing Chairman, agrees with McCashion’s assessment. While consumers in the focus groups praised potatoes for their taste and preparation versatility, “they knew nothing about their nutritional value,” says Meiggs. “Not one of them had every paid attention to the nutrition label on the bag [and] most didn’t even know it was there.”

Not surprisingly, the tag line for the new campaign—“The Healthy Potato: Naturally Nutritious, Always Delicious”—aims to convey the potato’s dual benefits. The USPB has also aligned itself with Weight Watchers™, which currently features the potato as its inaugural “Pick of the Season,” a new nutrition education program in which the company will highlight one fruit or vegetable each quarter.

Regardless, the potato may have to take its lumps, at least for a little while longer. “It does seem like we go through these cycles. Eggs are one of my favorites and they’ve turned around completely,” begins McCashion, acknowledging that the diet industry can be a powerful influence on the American consumer. “There is early weight loss in these [high-protein] programs that people find powerful and like to talk about.”

Although dieters want to believe otherwise there is no easy way to lose weight—it always comes down to a combination of exercise and consuming fewer calories. “The biggest misconception about potatoes is they are just empty calories,” says McCashion. “They’re not—they are a nutrition powerhouse.”