Panel reverses, says USDA should allow pregnant women, moms to purchase white potatoes in WIC

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Ostracized by health officials for several years, the white potato is back in favor.

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The prestigious Institute of Medicine said Tuesday that people aren't getting enough starchy vegetables or potassium and fiber, nutrients that are plentiful in potatoes.

The agency reversed itself and said white potatoes should be eligible for subsidized vouchers under the government's Women, Infants and Children program. The program gives needy pregnant women and mothers government-subsidized food vouchers to ensure good nutrition for their families.

But hold the french fries and potato chips. The WIC program only allows the purchase of vegetables without added sugars, fats or oils. The exact requirements vary state to state, but they can be fresh, frozen or canned, as long as they don't have the added ingredients.

The recommendations are used by the Agriculture Department in determining foods eligible for the women, infants and children program.

But they also have taken on political overtones. The potato industry and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from potato-growing states successfully pushed Congress to bypass previous IOM recommendations against the vegetable and include it in WIC. The action came as part of a one-year spending bill. Tuesday's IOM recommendation likely means Congress won't have to intervene on the issue going forward.

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"Intakes of all vegetable subgroups should be improved, including those of starchy vegetables," the report says. White potatoes include russet, red, yellow, fingerling, blue, and purple potatoes.

The IOM notes that since its 2006 recommendation against allowing white potatoes, the government's dietary guidelines increased the recommendation for starchy vegetables to 3.5 cups per week for children and 5 cups per week for women. On average, the panel says, children are consuming about 64 percent of what is recommended and women are consuming about 56 percent.

The dietary guidelines, issued every five years, are due for an update this year. The IOM said its recommendation should be re-evaluated if the current guidelines for starchy vegetables change.

The panel didn't review how potatoes were prepared at home, but doctors on the committee pointed out that people often add oils and cheese to other vegetables, besides potatoes.

"We're not sure that potatoes are prepared in the home a whole lot differently from other vegetables," said Dr. Susan Baker of the Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

In its 2006 report, the IOM said people already ate enough white potatoes. Nutrition advocates supported the recommendation, pointing out that potatoes are often eaten in unhealthy forms, like french fries and potato chips.

The Agriculture Department had banned white potatoes from WIC, citing the 2006 Institute of Medicine report. When Congress intervened in December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said lawmakers shouldn't be meddling in science. USDA spokesman Cullen Schwarz said Tuesday that the department thanks the IOM for their analysis and will "continue to ensure that WIC reflects the panel's recommendations."

The potato industry had another major legislative victory in 2011, when Congress voted to thwart the Agriculture Department's recommendation that only two servings a week of potatoes and other starchy vegetables be served in federally subsidized school lunches. The USDA effort was an attempt to limit the proliferation of french fries on school lunch lines.

WIC provides grants to states to provide food vouchers to low-income pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk. Only a handful of foods meant to boost nutrition are allowed, such as whole grains, low-fat dairy and fruits and vegetables.

Kathleen Rasmussen, a professor of nutrition at Cornell University, chaired the IOM committee. She says they don't know exactly how the recommendation will affect WIC recipients' buying patterns, but there is some evidence that those consumers like other vegetables just as much as they like potatoes.

"People like potatoes and they buy a lot of potatoes, but when you give them a voucher they don't necessarily buy potatoes with it," she said.

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