food science

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Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
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Cool Food Tricks To Save The Planet

Sometimes a hamburger isn't really a hamburger.

Reporting from TED 2011, the annual gathering of cool and cutting-edge rock stars in technology, entertainment, design and beyond, The Wall Street Journal details efforts by a pair of clever chefs to transform the look, taste and experience of food. For instance, they can make lemons taste like lemonade, or trick you into thinking you’re eating a burger, when really it’s root vegetables and grains on a bun. (Might they cook for my children, I wonder?)

The body can be tricked into sensing that it’s eating something that has the consistency and flavor of one particular food, even if the ingredients are totally, outlandishly different. Recently Cantu and Roche created a hamburger using beets and barley — and no cow — and patrons thought they were actually eating meat. Cantu and Roche have developed a BBQ sauce that is made of hay and crab apples. The promise is that foods could be made without resource-consuming animals and perhaps more healthfully, too.

As for the lemon, if flavors can be manipulated, there might be a way to make plants that people normally don’t eat into something edible, which could decrease hunger in food-scarce regions.