Despite assurances from key agencies, potato industry groups remain concerned about the future of potatoes in this year's and subsequent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra sent a letter to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, assuring her there is no intent or effort under way to reclassify potatoes as a grain under the guidelines. USDA and HHS are jointly responsible for updating the guidelines every five years.

This letter was enough proof for Collins, whose press release said that reclassification would have sent the wrong message to the public that the agencies see potatoes as unhealthy. 

Potato industry groups, however, believe the letter is a sign the two agencies are considering making potatoes interchangeable with grain in the guidelines, which would have an effect similar to reclassification. 

Some language in the letter actually sets the stage for justifying an interchangeability policy change, said Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council.

In the letter to Collins, the secretaries cited analyses of certain population groups and the cultural diversity of the United States. Quarles said that the consideration of anything other than science in the determination hints at the possibility of interchangeability. 

Reclassification is a fairly black-and-white stance, while interchangeability indicates similarity between two food items, said a House Agriculture Committee staff member who discussed the issue on the condition of not being identified. 

“I don’t see how you can defend the interchangeability,” the aide said. “You’re going to offer someone a slice of bread versus a potato, it’s apples and oranges, it’s just two very different things.” 

In addition to concerns with how interchangeability would affect nutrition, it could have a “devastating” impact on the potato industry, the staffer said.

The guidelines set the foundation for a number of regulations tied to federal feeding programs like school meals, WIC and more, and will remain in place for five years.

“While I think Secretary Vilsack has made it clear both reclassification and interchangeability in his mind are off the table, I don't know that an entirely independent federal advisory committee is going to listen to that,” Quarles said.

The advisory committee is holding its fifth meeting virtually Wednesday and Thursday. 

The two cabinet secretaries can revise or ignore the recommendations that the advisory committee delivers to them. When the process began over two years ago, the advisory committee asked specific questions about interchangeability, Quarles said. 

Kam QuarlesKam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council

In March Collins, along with other House and Senate signatories, sent a letter to the secretaries objecting to potato reclassification and interchangeability. The most recent letter from the two secretaries, and an email from HHS to Agri-Pulse, about the possibility of interchangeability only addressed the reclassification side.

“Potatoes are a vegetable, and the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is not reclassifying potatoes into the grains food group,” Janet de Jesus, nutrition advisor at the HHS Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said in the emailed response to Agri-Pulse about how the committee is considering potatoes and whether interchangeability is an option. 

The U.S. population is diverse and so is what we eat, de Jesus said. The committee is looking at data within and across food groups and considering dietary practices of various population groups. Its intention is to better understand nutritional impacts of these practices. 

“These analyses will help the committee more equitably consider the diversity of foodways and range of population needs, cultural norms, and preferences in the United States, but this will not result in reclassifying any vegetable, including potatoes, as a grain,” de Jesus said. 

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If potatoes were interchangeable with grain under the guidelines, it could have the same effect as reclassification, said Beth Johnson, CEO and founder of Food Directions and a consultant to the potato industry group. 

Potatoes are currently one of the most flexible and cost-effective options in the vegetable category, Quarles said. However, if made interchangeable with grain, it would become one of the highest-cost items when competing with a slice of bread or rice. 

“For those constituent groups like the local school districts, the return on investment of potatoes will get flipped on its head if you move it into a category where most of the other things cost less than us,” Quarles said. 

Federal feeding programs like school meals play a significant role in potato product sales. In 2023, K-12 schools accounted for $228 million in potato or potato product sales, according to data provided by NPC. 

Recently, USDA released updated long-term nutrition standards which list potatoes as a starchy vegetable. Each school lunch now must offer a fruit, vegetable, protein and grain. 

If there is a change under DGA, it doesn’t automatically mean a change for school meals, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. USDA will likely focus on implementing its latest rule before rethinking changes to potato classification.

The latest USDA school meal rule, which will be implemented starting in July, allows tribally-operated schools and schools in Guam and Hawaii to substitute vegetables for grains or to meet the grain requirement. 

Starchy vegetables have not been a “favorite” in various regulations in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, Johnson said. For example, there have been attempts to limit the number of days potatoes can be served or substituted in school meals. Johnson said potato interchangeability could just be an additional way of potentially limiting a serving. 

Beth Johnson.jpgBeth Johnson, Founder and Principal of Food Directions 

During the Obama administration, there was a serious push to limit the amount of starchy vegetables served in school lunches, as an effort to cut back on French fry consumption by children. However, those efforts were halted by Congress, which included language in spending bills to stop changes to potatoes. 

The interchangeability could raise a lot of confusion on why starchy vegetables are important to a diet and why different foods are recommended, Johnson said. Additionally, it moves the guidelines away from the science of nutrition and instead tries to conform the guidelines to meet how people are already eating. 

On the nutrition side, there are different nutrients in potatoes than in grains like vitamin C and potassium that would not be fulfilled with grains, she said.

A better way of addressing different cultural norms could be through education rather than the foundation of federal dietary advice, Johnson said. But given past efforts to focus on the starch content over other beneficial nutrients, she said cultural norms may not be the real motive. 

“We're starting to confuse. I think for the public really, why you're eating different food groups,” Johnson said. “The idea with eating different food groups is so that you can get that array of nutrients, and when you start saying grains and starchy vegetables can be interchanged, you could really go down a rabbit hole into all the different things that could be interchanged with anything in the food group.”

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