Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When is a potato not a potato?

When is a potato not a potato? When it's hyperprocessed into a package of Idahoan Buttery Homestyle Mashed Potatoes.

Idahoan holds a dominant position in the world of processed potato products and they occupy prime placement on supermarket shelves. One of its popular creations is a line of flavored instant mashed potatoes such as "Four Cheese" "Roasted Garlic" "Loaded Baked" "Smoked Bacon"  and "Buttery Homestyle".

Serious attention has been devoted to Idahoan's packaging which is designed to appeal to the consumer on multiple levels at first glance. "Buttery Homestyle" sports a rich gold foil and red label, retro engraving of a farmer in his field and appetizing image of creamy mashed potatoes. The words "homemade", "homestyle" and "buttery" are prominently displayed.  The word "Idahoan" and the blue ribbon inscribed with "America's Favorite Mashed Potato" drive home the message of wholesomeness and stimulate nostalgia for a classic American comfort food which many associate with childhood and family.

Perhaps the nice folks at Idahoan, who have been in the dehydrated potato business since 1960,  are betting that most shoppers will not turn over the package to examine its ingredients panel. Those who do will discover that the product is not a sweet vision of homestyle goodness, rather it is an unpleasant dream brought to you by industrial food science.

The first four ingredients-  potatoes, vegetable oil, corn syrup and salt - are a formula the food industry has carefully developed, knowing that fat, salt and sugar are irresistible to most humans. Following these is a long list of multi-syllabic ingredients,  most of which do not spring from the green fields of the Idaho farmer but have been developed in laboratories by food industry chemists to enhance flavor, appearance and shelf life.

The really bad news comes into focus in the Nutrition Facts box, required by law to show the nutrition breakdown per single serving, which Idahoan defines as 1/2 cup. Unrealistically small serving sizes are a ubiquitous device used in food industry nutrition labels to confuse consumers and obscure the facts about what they are really eating.  It is unlikely that the average person will limit their intake to just 1/2 cup.

What cannot be hidden is the fact that one small serving contains 440 milligrams of sodium; some of the other Idahoan mashed potato flavors contain close to 600 mg per serving.  The American Heart Association recommends sodium intake of 1500 mg or less daily,  but has found that the average American, including children over the age of two, now consumes 3400 mg of sodium daily. Excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, major causes of illness and mortality in the U.S.

Fortunately, no one must rely on a fancy foil package of processed potatoes in order to enjoy a delicious potato dish. Flavorful, organic potatoes are in season now and available in farmer's markets at much lower prices per pound than the hyperprocessed instant. 

Select small potatoes like Yukon Gold or Fingerling; they can be steamed in minutes in simmering water.  Once tender, drain potatoes and serve whole. Sprinkle with a few drops of olive oil and sea salt and enjoy a simple, nutritious meal straight from the earth.  That old time farmer in his potato field will thank you.