The humble potato falls from grace

Consumers are shunning the spud in a race away from carbohydrates and toward greater convenience.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 13, 2014 4:56PM
Credit: © Fotosearch/Getty Images

Caption: Potato farmingBy Andrea Gallo, The Wall Street Journal

The potato has had a great run for most of the past five centuries. But these days, the humble spud has fallen on hard times.

A darling of American dinner tables since before the nation's founding, potatoes have lost favor in the U.S. for the past two decades. 

Consumers have shunned the starchy side dish in a race away from carbohydrates and toward greater convenience, two factors driving broad changes in how Americans eat.

Total annual consumption of all types of potatoes has fallen by nearly 25 percent since peaking in 1996, to 52 pounds a person in 2012, the last year for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has data. 

Consumption of fresh potatoes -- the kind that are baked, chopped, mashed or hashed -- has been dropping even further, to about 27 pounds in 2012, down more than 40 percent from about 47 pounds in 1970.

Time-pressed Americans, who are cooking less and less, can hardly spare the roughly 10 minutes it takes to microwave a whole potato, let alone the hour needed to bake them in conventional ovens.

Diana Dahl, a 47-year-old consultant, said she grew up eating potatoes in all forms, but now avoids making classic potato dishes to save time. "I prefer to have them made for me," Ms. Dahl said.

While she also eschews fattening french fries, she does allow herself potato chips as an indulgence, she said, as she picked out rice chips and quinoa cheddar chips in a Plum Market grocery in Chicago.

Health concerns started eating into potato sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The backlash against carbohydrates early last decade, with the rise of the South Beach and Atkins diets that heavily limit starches, darkened the tater's reputation.

Potatoes are still big business. The raw potato crop was valued around $4 billion in 2012, according to the USDA, but processed products are worth much more. Sales of potato chips and crisps totaled $7.5 billion last year, estimates research firm Euromonitor.

Companies are trying new products, promotions, and flavors to reheat potatoes' popularity, such as healthier versions of french fries and gourmet options like the petite fingerling variety.

"We're gonna bring the sexy back," said Chris Wada, marketing director for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, an Idaho-based grower, shipper and marketer of potatoes founded by Mr. Wada's grandparents in 1943.

Wada is about to launch a line of Smalls Artisan Mini-Potatoes, bite-size red or gold spuds specially packaged to cook in a microwave in five minutes.

The U.S. Potato Board, a Denver-based industry group, is running advertisements in lifestyle magazines to polish the potato's image as a health food. 

Past ads carried luscious photos of potato dishes with captions like, "just because it looks sinful doesn't mean it is." New ads direct readers to the Potato Board's website, which features potato-based recipes (some being "guilt-free"), nutritional facts and other resources.

A medium plain fresh russet potato has about 168 calories, 37 grams of carbohydrates, virtually no sodium or fat, and plenty of potassium and vitamin C, according to the USDA.

Prices for fresh potatoes are highly volatile, and have fallen especially sharply this summer, for reasons that aren't clear. Russet-Burbank potatoes in Idaho that were fetching as much as $8 per hundredweight (100 pounds) at the end of May were selling at between $3.25 and $4 by early August, according to Paul Patterson, an economist at the University of Idaho's Idaho Falls Research and Extension Center.

Bryon Reed, partial owner and grower at DB Reed Farms in Idaho, said the recent plunge is the sharpest he has seen in 40 years of farming, causing him about $250,000 losses in one three-week period.

Still, he says overall he is seeing healthier demand in recent years, thanks partly to fingerlings and red potatoes. He says fingerlings cost about seven times more to grow than the standard Russet-Burbank variety, but sell for an even higher premium. "They're not healthier," he said. "They're just more unique."

It wasn't always so tough for taters. The Incas cultivated potatoes for millennia. Spanish Conquistadors began the spread of the tuber's popularity in the 16th Century when they brought them to Europe. Then European emigrants took them back across the Atlantic, planting in 1719 the first potato patches in what is now in New Hampshire.

The spud gained a new friend in 1949, when a year-old outfit called McDonald's (MCD) started selling fries with its burgers, spawning imitators across the fast-food industry. Forty-four years later, McDonald's Corp. started selling its signature side order in 7.1-ounce supersize portions, with 610 calories. McDonald dropped super sizes in 2004.

Some potato companies innovated to keep sales growing. In the early 2000s, PepsiCo's (PEP) Frito-Lay division started experimenting with new flavors for its Lays potato chips to add to mainstays flavors like classic, barbecue, and sour cream and onion. Frito-Lays' chip sales have grown, and it remains by far the biggest player, with nearly 70 percent share of the U.S. market last year, according to Euromonitor.

Much of the recent innovation around potatoes has been focused on calorie counts. Burger King Worldwide (BKW) last year started selling Satisfries, advertised as having 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than regular fries.

ConAgra Foods' (CAG) Alexia brand of all-natural frozen foods has launched a line called Smart Classics featuring fries and frozen roasted potatoes with sea salt that are 98 percent fat free, 100 calories per serving and have no trans fat.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Aug 13, 2014 8:19PM
The calories from potatoes are needed by those that actually work for a living.
Aug 13, 2014 9:20PM
Potatos are good for you , it's the junk that people put on them that makes them bad .
Aug 13, 2014 10:32PM

It's all BS. In the 1970's I became a single mom of 2 kids and so did my sis. I went to college, worked, was getting a divorce and having to be a mom, cook and house keeper. No time today? I still cook from  scratch, just like I did back then. My husband of now says "how did you make that so fast?" Single Mom. No fast food, no packaging. You too, can do it. Quit wining about "not enough time". I don't have the time to listen to your sniveling .

Aug 13, 2014 9:26PM
Baked potato on hot wood coals, butter, sour cream, fresh chives, crumbled bacon. It's a close second to sex. 
Aug 13, 2014 9:23PM
Nobody! Messes with the potato! Don't these health idiots know that everything is gradually killing them anyway.

You eat what you want to eat and I'll eat what I want to eat and still remain healthy.
Aug 13, 2014 9:56PM
Home fries every Saturday morning cooked in real butter with garlic salt bell peppers and onions, in a cast iron skillet. Need I say more !!!!
Aug 13, 2014 9:31PM
The "eyes" have it.  By popular vote potatoes will be brought back into our diets! 
Aug 13, 2014 9:35PM
Baked potatoes are my favorite!  Like already mentioned, it's the butter, the cream and other ingredients that make them fattening.  A potato has gotten a bad rap as just a starchy vegetables but also contains complex carbs, fiber, B6, niacin, potassium, copper, vitamin C and other phytonutrients. Unfortunately, I don't know if these same benefits transfer to the fast and easy boxed variety everyone seems to love more than the brown lump of vegetable that is a potato. 
Aug 13, 2014 10:27PM
I can't stop wondering what sinister non potato processing agricultural enterprises must be standing behind this new nutritional fad. Nothing will surprise me, having long heard nutrition professionals extol the virtues of "Splenda" and "Crystal Light" sweet poisons and prescribing "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter," artery-clogging, hydrogenated-fat-riddled margarine to patients! Not to mention cardiologists recommending statin drugs for the slightest rise in blood cholesterol levels. What's the matter, don't such health authorities care or bother to keep abreast of the scientific advances and discoveries that have followed their remote college graduation?

As for me, the choice will definitely be: baked potatoes with real butter.
Aug 13, 2014 9:55PM
When did 4 minutes in the microwave become time consuming? Oh.. yeah.. that whole microwave thing was thrown out with the carbs wasn't it? My bad! 
Aug 14, 2014 12:17AM
Can't spare the 10 mins it takes to cook a potato in the microwave?  "I would rather have them made for me." Maybe the article should have addressed that nonsensical statement that if true, is the root of obesity in America.  "Convenience" is killing us.   
Aug 13, 2014 10:05PM
There are so many dishes that potatoes can be used in I just made some Roastbeef Hash man that hits the spot, it beats fast food any day .... Forget the Burgers .....
Aug 14, 2014 12:53AM
There is no one single food item that is a better comfort food than the potato. Does anyone feel angry when eating a potato?
Aug 13, 2014 10:18PM
A baked potato with salsa is delicious. Other than the sodium in the salsa it's not that bad for you. It's just spicy enough to make a plain bland potato better. I do put a little butter on it but in a pinch a spoonful of good olive oil works too. About the only time I eat a baked potato is in the colder months. It's a hot meal and it helps to raise my core body temperature.
Aug 13, 2014 6:19PM
Potatoes are being replace by beans and rice in burritos!
Aug 13, 2014 11:28PM
I have eaten the SOBS for 72 years , like em , love em , will continue to do so  , fulk all you food freaks  !!
Aug 13, 2014 9:46PM
It is not necessarily the potato that adds calories as much as what is added to it. Same with salads! Toppings add calories as well as many dressings for salads.
Aug 13, 2014 9:40PM
Besides, notice how, above the fact of how much percent of the total item of food is fat has been somewhat hidden for those of us who are not chemists with calculators. They haven't given the weight of the total item so one can figure how much fat there is of the total. And even if you could, weight in grams is not really what some people are in need of. They want to know what percent in terms of how bodies burn food, the item contains the various elements whether protein, carbs, fat, fiber or whatever. Some people say we shouldn't eat much that has more than 12 percent or 15 percent fat. You need to have comparable figures so you can compare the elements to the whole. I don't know which lobby has enabled this lack of information. It may be one of several or it could be the government agency under who knows who's tutelage  that is responsible. Do you ever feel like you are on some kind of conveyor belt?
Aug 14, 2014 12:56AM
I don't know what these writers eat, But potatoes are a main stay at my house
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