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When facts don’t matter

Sitting at my desk in Washington, D.C., I am regularly forwarded emails from so-called pro-consumer groups urging people to support their latest public policy campaigns. Some groups pressure restaurants to substitute fresh fruits and vegetables for french fries in children’s meals. Others urge for strict bans on pesticides or other crop protection tools they have deemed unacceptable. And some call for taxes on sugar, fat, salt, trans fat, etc., etc., etc. … in foods offered to consumers.

While each email may be unique, they all have the same “Donate Here” button somewhere in the message. Most also tug at the reader’s heartstrings, pick-and-choose data that supports their viewpoint, or reinforce misperceptions about food and farming.

The recurring motto for these groups, and for some of the federal and state decision makers they are trying to influence, seems to be, “Why let facts get in the way of our goals?”

Take, for example, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Those nutrition advocacy groups opposed to adding fresh white potatoes to the program point to a 2005 report by the Institute of Medicine, which concluded that WIC participants already eat enough potatoes. Fair enough, the report does say that; but those groups pretend nothing has changed in a decade.

The truth is per capita consumption of potatoes has declined since 2005 while the federal government’s own starchy vegetable nutritional targets have increased. As a result, the vast majority of Americans are not getting enough starchy vegetables in their diets. The WIC program could help low-income women and children close that gap by adding potatoes to the WIC basket. For anti-potato activists, those inconvenient facts don’t matter as long as potatoes remain banned from the program. 

Another example is a revived campaign that urges lawmakers to mandate significant changes to the nutritional profile of kids’ meals in schools and restaurants. At its core, these consumer groups are focused on french fries, characterizing them as one of the leading contributing factors to the “poor nutritional quality” of children’s meals.

French fries have long been a hot button issue for nutritional advocates, and are the frequent scapegoat for America’s growing rates of childhood obesity. These groups paint the picture that children are consuming deep-fried french fries at every meal, including those served in schools, and are pushing other “more nutritious” vegetables off of kids’ plates. Yet, what they won’t admit is that french fries contribute very few calories to the average child’s overall diet while providing much-needed nutrients.

The fact is french fries are far from the only thing children are eating. On average, kids receive around two percent of their daily caloric intake from french fries. In addition, of the fries served in schools, about 90 percent are oven-baked and meet USDA’s meal pattern guidelines for calories and sodium, meaning that they’re not the dietary bomb that nutritional advocates insist they are. In fact, a serving of oven-baked fries provides just 116 calories and is a good way to deliver two sources of “shortfall nutrients” that kids need, fiber and potassium, as well as other nutrients like vitamins C and B6.

Quick service restaurant french fries are also eaten with less frequency than consumer groups claim. Data from the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that grain-based desserts are the top contributor of calories to the American diet. In fact, all types of fried potatoes combined don’t make the top 10 sources of calories in the diet, and french fries contribute just 1.5 percent of all calories. 

NPC, USPB, the Alliance for Potato Education and Research, and others in the U.S. potato industry will continue to use facts to make the case that potatoes in all forms are one of the best nutritional values in the produce department and that french fries can fit into all healthy diets. I just won’t hold my breath that those who make their living demonizing potatoes and french fries will be willing to consider the facts before sending out their next fundraising email.  

— By John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO

Originally posted Friday, May. 23, 2014

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